Once, college basketball programs’ relationship with shoe companies was that of consumer and supplier. Hard as it is to believe, schools, even ones who played on national television, needed shoes, and their method of acquiring them was to pay for them. This changed in 1977 when Nike, struggling to find NBA players to sponsor, hired Sonny Vaccaro, a well-connected amateur basketball promoter, to offer coaches a different relationship—one that would transmute college programs from customer to billboard overnight. Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There details Vaccaro’s meeting with Jim Valvano, the coach at Iona.
Many coaches didn’t believe Vaccaro’s pitch at first. When lona Coach Jim Valvano met Vaccaro at the LaGuardia airport, he didn’t understand what Vaccaro was talking about. Vaccaro reached into his briefcase and drew out a check. Valvano later joked that he thought Vaccaro was going to ask him to throw a game, or put out a contract on somebody.
“What’s this for?” said Valvano at the airport that day.
Vaccaro took out a Nike basketball shoe.
“I want your team to wear this shoe.”
“How much do I have to pay for them?” asked Valvano.
“No, I’ll give you the shoes.”
“Let me get this straight,” Valvano said. “You want to give me free shoes for my kids and you want to pay me to let you do it?”
Vaccaro’s gambit took Nike from a niche running company to a national brand. At its bare bones this arrangement continues, and for the most part, it remains mutually beneficial. Schools sign with sneaker companies, get money and free shoes, and athletic apparel companies sit back and watch the exposure they get from their product in action, getting beamed into houses and sports bars across America.
Is making institutions of higher learning function as shoe billboards a little crass? I suppose, but it’s not much different from, well, everything else in capitalism. But there is an element of all this that is more actively nauseating: everyone involved is getting economic compensation from this arrangement except the players. NCAA athletes are expected to operate under the auspices of amateurism, a hastily defined ethic that presumes sports aren’t pure if players are getting money for them. Athletes are compensated with scholarships, but not actual money, and they are also barred from plying their trade in any context where they might get paid with cold, hard cash. It’s an asinine system that makes 18-year-olds perform labor that creates heaps of profit for what amounts to exposure.
But, as we know from the world of drug trafficking, prostitution, or any number of other vices that are made illicit by legislation, capital always creates a shadow economy where there’s a demand. Avenues to compensation, lurking in the shallow shadows of the college sports world, be they booster organizations, coaches, or, God forbid, sneaker companies, are available to high-level athletic talents if they want or need them but still want to play for a college program.
Yesterday, Michael Avenatti, an attention-seeking litigator and loathsome Resistance grifter who recently acted like he was going to run for president, was arrested for allegedly seeking to extort up to $25 million from Nike. Avenatti, for his part, claims this is a smokescreen from Nike, who are scared of a lawsuit he is heading up on behalf of an AAU coach who used to work with Nike. After he was released on bond, he stood in front of reporters and indulged in soaring rhetoric about his crusade against Nike: “For the entirety of my career, I have fought against the powerful—powerful people and powerful corporations. I will never stop fighting that good fight.”
Then, like all great men of our time, he took to Twitter:
Avenatti is referring to the federal government’s ongoing investigation of basketball movers and shakers, a show-off prosecutorial action that basically amounts to the Justice Department using its subpoena power and the American public’s tax dollars to enforce the NCAA’s rules. Avenatti then outed NBA rookie phenom Deandre Ayton, the Phoenix Suns’ No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, as well as Bol Bol, a star freshman at the University of Oregon who recently declared for the 2019 NBA draft:
The Bahamas-born Ayton is the son of a plumber, and famously had to work with his father for a week to earn the $100 to pay for basketball camp as a youngster. Bol was born in Sudan and is the son of former NBA player Manute Bol, who was accused of being a spy in his home country and forced to relocate his family to the U.S. as political refugees. Bol’s tireless devotion to his native Sudan, for which he raised millions and where he sent most of his money, often put the family in debt. He passed away in 2010.
It stands to reason that Nike, who have a profound financial stake in programs they sponsor winning and in high-level talents signing with them after they jump to the NBA, would arrange payments with players to direct them to programs they sponsor. They wouldn’t be the only company or individual who did this. It’s against the rules, I guess.
But who cares?
Avenatti is making a public show of fighting against powerful people and corporations, but he must understand that the actual exploited parties here aren’t some random AAU coach and the noble NCAA programs who are doing everything they can to keep their precious institution clean, but the players who generate money and prestige for heaps of people and are denied any compensation.
This isn’t to say that Nike’s grassroots basketball soldiers were (allegedly) playing dirty pool with Ayton and Bol and whoever else out of the goodness of their heart. They did it to make money. But if, in the course of their eternal hunt for profit, Nike accidentally did some work in making up the massive gap between money someone else makes off players and money the players make then honestly, it’s hard to see how this is anything less than a positive outcome for someone litigating the fairness of how college basketball operates. The NCAA’s rules created a shadow economy for no particularly good reason, their business partners acted rationally and participated in it, and the players got a degree of compensation for their labor as a result. This seems like how things should work.
Avenatti sees these fights he takes up, be they on behalf of Stormy Daniels or weird AAU coaches, as a source of grifter’s energy, not a fight for justice or whatever the hell he is framing them as. He knows dopey sports fans who’ve bought in on amateurism will care about him bringing justice to Nike on behalf of the NCAA, so he pursues it. But hassling Deandre Ayton, Bol Bol and their mothers for getting theirs while everyone else was getting paid off their prowess isn’t making a stand for the powerful—it’s snitching on behalf of an extralegal cartel that has the whole U.S. government in its thrall.