limited edition adidas trainers How agents and shoe companies team up to exploit athletes
It’s a trap. The target enters, takes the bait. The door snaps shut behind him.
It’s a system created to lure the nation’s best basketball players, often capturing them when they’re still in high school.
The trap is operated by sports agents, coaches and financial advisers who lock promising young players into their networks, controlling their careers through college and the NBA, all to maximize their value to apparel companies intent on driving sales in the multibillion dollar sneaker market.
It can take different forms. Often a player has no idea he is being played. Often his parents, coaches or friends the people he most trusts most are active participants. And once a prospect or his family takes the bait by accepting cash or plane tickets or hotel rooms or any other benefit, the trap door snaps shut.
With his amateur eligibility damaged, his basketball career may no longer be his own.
An ongoing FBI investigation, focused on agents and coaches working with Adidas, last fall turned a spotlight on the trap, though it’s been an open secret in basketball for decades.
The latest: Complete coverage of the FBI recruiting investigation
More: A look at connections between Kentucky and FBI documents
Three federal criminal complaints released in September detailed some aspects of the process: Coaches, financial advisers, agents and the shoe company allegedly working together to control a prospect’s basketball career and business dealings for their own enrichment.
Ten men were criminally charged. The revelations helped bring down University of Louisville coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich and continue to cause widespread shockwaves in college basketball, threatening the NCAA and perhaps legal trouble for more colleges.
It’s a scandal that could reshape the business of basketball for generations.
“Everybody is involved in this scandal. There’s nobody left out,” Sonny Vaccaro, a retired shoe company executive, told Courier Journal on Saturday. “. The most important person in the transaction is that high school kid . and he’s the poorest of all of them. And they’re all bidding on his ability to play basketball to win championships, go to the Final Four, to sell shoes, to sell suits, to put money in investments.”
To understand how the trap works and the damage it can do all you have to do is listen to the people who work it.
“If we take care of everybody and everything is done,
we control everything. You can make millions off of one kid,” sports agent Christian Dawkins allegedly told an undercover FBI agent when asked how he could “guarantee” a player would sign with a particular financial adviser.
‘They want to win’
“Temptation is unbelievable,” Vaccaro said. “I guess we believe in Adam and Eve? That’s what happened here. They bite the goddamn apple every time they can do it. They want to win. That’s the whole point.”
Vaccaro, 78, is the undisputed godfather of the basketball endorsement industry. Basketball’s modern day story can’t be told without his role, which goes back into the 1970s.
Working for Nike, Vaccaro signed Michael Jordan in the 1980s a move that took the shoe industry to a new level of success. The Air Jordan brand alone was worth $2.8 billion per year, according to figures from May 2016 reported by Forbes. Jordan, though long retired, made $110 million from a shoe endorsement contract covering 2016 17 more than triple the $32 million Nike paid the top current NBA star, LeBron James.
Vaccaro, who ran operations at Adidas and Reebok after his tenure at Nike, started the ABCD camp to showcase the nation’s best high school basketball prospects. It set the stage for today’s top flight AAU tournaments and all star events sponsored by shoe companies, offering exposure for prospects.
“Temptation is unbelievable. I guess we believe in Adam and Eve? That’s what happened here. They bite the goddamn apple every time they can do it. They want to win. That’s the whole point.”
Sonny Vaccaro, retired shoe company executive
“This is not virgin territory.” Vaccaro said when asked about the FBI investigation.
“There’s been scandals in college athletics forever,” he said. “And there’s been a word in college athletics forever: Amateurism. And amateurism and scandal go together.”
James Gatto whom Vaccaro once told ESPN he had hired and had known since birth is now the director of global sports marketing for basketball at Adidas, the second largest athletic shoe seller in North America.
Gatto was placed on administrative leave after his arrest by the FBI. He has been indicted on a charge of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He was alleged to have conspired to pay five star recruit Brian Bowen’s family to entice him to attend the University of Louisville.
Bowen has said he had no knowledge of any payments. Vaccaro said he believes it.
“During that 20 years when I was totally involved with signing these kids up, I know they had no clue that Jimmy was doing this with Joey,” Vaccaro said. “Really?’ Most of the time if the parent was involved, I would get a ‘Well, Mr. Vaccaro, we really didn’t have a lot. And we didn’t think anything was wrong with that,
because coach took care of me when I got there’ or something like that.”