Feinstein: Shoe Companies Wield Too Much Power

Folks like Nike founder Phil Knight don't just own shoe companies; they own college basketball, John Feinstein says

John Feinstein
July 25, 2018 - 8:41 am

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I saw a headline on the internet this morning that made me cringe just a little bit. It was about "shoe free agents."

I didn’t read the story, but I gathered it was about various high-priced, high-profile athletes whose sneaker contracts are up and who might be "recruiting" them to endorse their products—no doubt for millions of dollars.

Reading the headline, I thought back to the summer of 1988, when I first went to work at Sports Illustrated. My first assignment was to write about the rising influence of sneaker companies in the world of college basketball—specifically Nike and Sonny Vaccaro, the man who pretty much invented the idea of paying college coaches to put their players into Nike shoes and gear and to promote the company.

It was Vaccaro, as much as anyone, who first made Nike into the juggernaut it became.

I went to Las Vegas for a high school summer tournament because I knew all the top college coaches would be there. Almost all of them had stories about players Vaccaro had "taken under his wing" while they were at Nike-sponsored summer camps and had steered them to what were now known as “Nike” schools.

Vaccaro’s number one client/endorser at the time was John Thompson, who had built Georgetown into a national power, had won the national title in 1984 and was about to coach the U.S. Olympic team. He had also just signed Alonzo Mourning, the anointed successor to Patrick Ewing as a great Georgetown big man.

Every coach I spoke to during that week in Vegas told me the story about Mourning not really wanting to go to Georgetown—that he preferred Georgia Tech and Bobby Cremins or perhaps even Maryland and Bob Wade—to Georgetown and the notoriously strict Thompson.

But no one would go on the record.

I mean, no one. Frustrated, I sat down at breakfast one morning with Joey Meyer, who was then the coach at DePaul. I told him my dilemma: I had plenty of stories on Vaccaro and Nike and a potentially explosive anecdotal example in Mourning.

“Why won’t anyone go on the record?” I asked Meyer.

Meyer was always one of the brighter, more introspective guys to coach at the college level.

“John,” he said, “there are two kinds of college basketball coaches right now: those with Nike contracts and those who wish they had Nike contracts.”

Boom—he’d nailed it.

I thought back 30 years to that brutally hot week (don’t let anyone tell you that a "dry heat" at 107 isn’t awful) in Vegas when I read that headline.

Nike remains the number one force in what is now a multi-billion-dollar business but plenty of others have gotten into the game. Adidas and Reebok joined forces several years ago and Under Armour—the newcomer to the sneaker wars—has become a force.

Honestly, I don’t keep track anymore of which coaches are attached to which shoe company. I know they pour millions into the schools and coaches they deal with and their influence is overwhelming. No one in college basketball was even a little bit surprised to find Adidas smack in the middle of the FBI investigation last fall that brought Rick Pitino down at Louisville. No one would be surprised if other shoe company names and representatives turn up as the FBI investigation moves on—if it moves on.

Here’s the problem: no one really wants to police the shoe companies. Everyone—and I mean everyone—is being paid too much money by them to want to go after them. It would be the jock equivalent of killing—or trying to kill—the golden goose.

In today’s college sports world, the shoe companies are paying big-time schools so much money and supplying them with so much gear that no one wants to touch them.

The NCAA? There’s far too much shoe company money in the system—TV advertising, gear for athletes and officials, marketing dollars—to mess with the shoe giants.

One thing I learned way back in 1988 is that one of the reasons Vaccaro was so powerful was that there were no rules governing him or Nike. He could give as much gear to athletes as he wanted to; get them front row tickets to concerts and ballgames; introduce them to any celebrities they might want to meet.

Why?

Because, technically he didn’t represent the "athletic interests" of any one school. None of the NCAA’s rules applied to him. That’s still very much the case today. Remember, Louisville was punished by the NCAA this past fall NOT for the alleged $100,000 that a recruit received but for the "madam" scandal of several years ago, which involved players and recruits receiving sexual favors from women in Louisville’s jock dorm.

When North Carolina skated soon afterwards in the wake of its academic scandal, there were two jokes that made the rounds. One was that Louisville’s mistake was not bringing in a few non-basketball players to receive the madam’s sexual favors because the NCAA let UNC off on the technicality that there were non-athletes involved in the fraudulent classes and, thus, the school was not guilty of giving extra benefits to athletes.

The second joke was that if Adidas had funded the Louisville madam the NCAA would have looked the other way.

Books have been written about the influence of the sneaker companies. As I write this, there are rising high school seniors whose college destinations—granted for one year—are already decided based on which sneaker company funds their AAU team and coach.

Unless a coach is caught authorizing a payment to a player, there’s no rule that says the player can’t decide to stick with Nike, Adidas, Under Armour—whomever you want to name—when he goes to college.

When Brian Bowen’s name surfaced as the recruit whose family had allegedly been paid $100,000 to go to Louisville, I asked a number of coaches if they believed the story was true. One big-name coach who had been involved early with Bowen, told me he believed the story—but didn’t think it was close to being the entire story.

“We went to see him play the summer before his senior season,” this coach, who has never been accused of cheating told me. “We were walking into the gym when I saw his dad pull up in some kind of very fancy, very expensive sports car. The dad was far from wealthy. I couldn’t resist. I went up to him and said something like, 'Nice car you’ve got there.’

“He just looked at me and said, ‘It’s not mine. I got it for Brian for his birthday.’ I told my coaches, ‘We’ve got no shot at this kid. Someone is taking very good care of him.’”

There are stories like that everywhere. One of the things coaches laughed at were the dollar figures attached to various players by the FBI. Their consensus: Not even close, a drop in the bucket compared to what’s actually being paid.

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot more of my time in the winter at non-big-time games. When I get to select which conference tournaments to attend, I go to the Ivy League, the Patriot League, the CAA.

I feel more comfortable there. I don’t see very many big-name agents or shoe company reps lurking there. The players talk about what they’re going to get their degree in. Do they dream of playing professionally? Yes. And many do—most of them overseas.

Last fall, Phil Knight threw himself an 80th birthday party in Portland and 16 big-time schools and coaches on the Nike payroll showed up to play in what was modestly called the “PK-80” tournament.

The coaches lined up to tell everyone—on ESPN of course, which also gets millions in advertising revenue from the shoe companies—what a great influence Phil Knight had been on college athletics.

Among those coaches lining up were Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo—men I have great respect for and like. It made me sick.

Soon after, Phil Knight’s auto-biography was published. It became a bestseller.

No doubt all those coaches who have a Nike deal bought it in bulk. And those who wish they had a Nike deal probably bought it in double-bulk.

Sigh.
 
 
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “The Majors—The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,”—spent five months on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Mystery in Black and White,” was selected by the Junior Literary Guild as one of the best books of 2017. His new novel, “The Prodigy,” which is set at the Masters, will be published next month.