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November 29, 2014

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From sneakers to O’Bannon

Wilken’s decision does not appear likely to radically reshape college sports

“When I first heard about the decision, I was speechless,” Sonny Vaccaro said.

Speechless as in he never thought this day would come.

Vaccaro is the former sneaker marketer turned anti-NCAA crusader, and he was talking about the Aug. 8 decision in the O’Bannon case — the one in which Judge Claudia Wilken ruled that the principle of amateurism is not a legal justification for business practices that violate the nation’s antitrust laws.

Although he is not a lawyer, Vaccaro is as responsible for the O’Bannon case as anyone. (Disclosure: One of the O’Bannon lawyers works for same law firm as my wife. She has no involvement in the case.)

Vaccaro first got the idea for the lawsuit in the late 1990s, around the time that ESPN bought Classic Sports Network for $175 million. ESPN Classic, as it was renamed, replays games from the past, many of which involve college teams. The players in those games have long since left college, yet they have no rights to their names and likenesses, just as had been the case when they were in school.

How, wondered Vaccaro, could that possibly be OK?

Vaccaro is probably best known for coming up with the idea of the “sneaker contract” during his heyday as a marketer for Nike. That’s a deal in which a college coach receives payment for having his team wear a particular brand of sneakers. In the 1980s, still with Nike, he took the idea a step further, paying a university to have all its athletes wear the same brand. There is not much question that Vaccaro helped fuel the commercialization of college sports. Though, as he likes to remind people, “the schools could have turned the money down. They never did.”

In 2007, Vaccaro quit his final job in the sneaker industry — at Reebok — to devote his time to fighting the NCAA, an organization he had come to loathe. He began going around the country making anti-NCAA speeches at universities. Five years ago, while in Washington to make a speech at Howard University, he had dinner with a lawyer friend and laid out his idea of bringing a lawsuit revolving around the names and likenesses of former college athletes. Before long, he was put in touch with Michael Hausfeld, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who was looking for a high-profile case to run with.

And one other thing: He found Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA basketball star who became the lead plaintiff. Or, rather, O’Bannon called Vaccaro after seeing an avatar, clearly based on himself, in a video game, asking whether he had any recourse. Vaccaro, in turn, put O’Bannon together with Hausfeld. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the cool light of day, Wilken’s decision does not appear likely to radically reshape college sports. The relief she granted the plaintiffs is likely to put some money into the pockets of athletes who play big-time football or men’s basketball. But it is certainly not going to make anybody rich, and the average fan won’t even notice the difference. It is not like the kind of change that took place when major league baseball players gained the right to become free agents in the 1970s. For instance, she ruled that players still won’t be able to endorse products for money. In so ruling, she bought into one of the NCAA’s core views — namely that college athletes need to be protected from “commercial exploitation.”

What is radical about her decision — and what could pave the way for further changes in other lawsuits — was her dismantling of the various rationales the NCAA has put forth over the years as its justification for insisting on amateurism as the bedrock of college athletics. Assuming her decision stands up on appeal, the NCAA will lose its ability to argue that amateurism is so noble an ideal that, in and of itself, it justifies anticompetitive behavior.

“Do I wish the decision had gone further?” Vaccaro said Monday. “Sure. It vindicated people like me, who have been voices in the wilderness for so long.”

“We have exposed them,” Hausfeld said. “We have gotten rid of their implicit immunity from the antitrust laws.”

In March, another antitrust suit was filed against the NCAA, by Jeffrey Kessler, a lawyer best known in the sports world for bringing the suit that gained free agency for professional football players.

Kessler’s suit is much more ambitious than O’Bannon’s. He is arguing that the “matrix of restrictions” (as he put it to me) that prevent universities from deciding how to value and compensate players is anticompetitive and violates the antitrust laws.

Thus does O’Bannon now pass the baton to Kessler, as the NCAA’s critics begin the next leg of this race.

Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.

Obama’s Jimmy Carter moment

Martin Schram

Belatedly — but, we hope, finally! — we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the Carterization of Barack Obama’s presidency.

It has come not a moment too soon. We can only hope that it is real and not too late.

President Obama is scrambling to halt a new genocide in which suddenly powerful Sunni Islamist fanatics are slaughtering victims simply because they are Christians or non-Muslim Yazidi sect members. And the reality of that led Obama to give at least two orders this month he probably thought he’d never give.

First, the president who proudly boasted that he’d withdrawn the last U.S. combat troops from Iraq reluctantly ordered U.S. warplanes back into the skies over northern Iraq. Their mission: bomb rampaging, genocide-bent Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters who had taken over strongholds of Iraq’s pro-western Kurds. Thousands of terrified families had fled and were trapped on Mount Sinjar. About 100 U.S. civilian staffers and military guards at the U.S. Consulate in Erbil also were in danger.

Obama’s announcement caused his critics the discomfort of actually liking something he’d done. But of course Washington’s politicians of the left, center and right, always quick to cover their aspirations, hastened to proclaim themselves absolutely and irrevocably against ever again putting American “boots on the ground” in Iraq.

Yet, in the real world, commanders in chief eventually learn there are consequences for failing to do a job when lives of women and children are at stake. So, while echoing the refrain of “no boots on the ground,” Obama gave his second order: He dispatched 130 U.S. military “advisers” into Iraq to come up with a way of rescuing those potential victims of the ISIS genocide.

Now, all who chronicle these events know the code: Sending modest numbers of advisers often means many more may soon follow — to ensure an ISIS genocide of non-Muslims can be thwarted. If those U.S. military advisers get the job done, history may never remember what shoes they wore.

What Obama’s military rescue mission shows is that yet another commander in chief has bowed to the reality that he cannot make good outcomes happen just by uttering wishful words. A surprised and disapproving world took Obama’s measure back when he confidently assured the planet Syrian President Bashar Assad would soon be gone, then famously drew his “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons but took no military action after Syria used them — and failed to even send vital weapons to Syria’s moderate rebels who desperately needed them.

Obama’s national security A-Team — Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta and Gen. David Petraeus — recommended arming Syria’s most trusted rebel factions. We learned that from Clinton’s new book, “Hard Choices.”

Predictably, the moderate rebel factions floundered without weapons; and ISIS raced in to fill the vacuum. Pathetically, ISIS today is excellently armed — with U.S. weapons they simply picked up when Iraqi soldiers fled and dropped the arms America gave them.

Unfortunately, few world figures today are willing to boldly lead simply because it’s the right thing to do. Earlier this year, the world had warnings of ISIS’ genocidal bent. News reported ISIS troops demanded Arab Christians convert to Islam or be killed. But the stories were often buried. World leaders shrugged and went about their daily grinds, even when Pope Francis condemned ISIS actions a month ago after the rebels captured the city of Mosul and Christians fled. Seven decades after the Nazi Holocaust, the world’s news deciders seem to have forgotten the ecumenical lesson of “Never again!”

Now we are racing back into Iraq. Racing to save non-Muslim Arabs from being victims of a genocide we knew was about to happen but never cared enough to wake up the world and make it care.

We are racing back, with no great plan in hand, because now we cannot permit Iraq to disintegrate into global jihad’s next haven.

Although the world gets it when we talk about a president’s Carterization — it’s Jimmy Carter’s image as a flawed leader swept along by events — there is a larger lesson the world overlooks.

Jimmy Carter indeed seemed powerless after Iranian revolutionaries held his U.S. Embassy staff in Iran hostage, but he also accomplished one of the boldest leadership achievements of any president. Carter’s Camp David summit and his unscripted personal shuttle diplomacy produced an Israeli-Egyptian peace that endures in that tumultuous region.

A bold, courageous personal presidential involvement — a “roll up your sleeves and quit fretting about legacy images” effort — may once again be what that exploding region and the world need right now.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive.

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