OAKLAND, Calif. — Sonny Vaccaro believes God gave him a way with words. During his fascinating journey from the small Pennsylvania town of Trafford to this court room where history is being made in Northern California, he has constantly used that gift to express his opinions. They are often emotional, loud, animated, and they contain just the kind of vigor he always imagined would make him a great asset in a lawsuit against the NCAA.
From the beginning five years ago, when he convinced Ed O'Bannon to be the lead plaintiff in this case, he could see it in his head: Vaccaro passing his expertise on the inner workings of college sports to the attorneys, bursting through the door with the key revelation at the last moment, holding his own news gatherings on the steps of the United States Courthouse. He kept thinking about actors Sam Waterston in "Law & Order" and Joe Pesci in "My Cousin Vinny."
Did he get carried away? Sure. But that's John Paul "Sonny" Vaccaro, son of an Italian immigrant steel-worker, who dreamed big and followed his street instincts into the middle of the college basketball machine that ballooned with his help in the 1980s and 1990s. Now that he's here, watching each day of the trial from the back of the room with his wife, Pam, by his side, he understands that in this foreign world he is not the one pulling the strings.
"I want to answer every question they have up there," Vaccaro, 74, said. "What I found out, it's not your opinions. It's not what you know to be the truth, it's about the law. This case isn't about sentiments, the right thing to do. The right thing to do a long time ago would be to compensate these kids in whatever way they thought fit. The scholarship was never enough."
This is Vaccaro "bottled up" and "shackled," as he puts it. He's keeping his mouth shut -- well, as much as he can, anyway. Throughout the three weeks of this class-action antitrust trial that ends Friday, Vaccaro has let his actions speak for him. He wasn't going to miss a second of testimony if he could help it (he didn't attend one day because of a family obligation), and at any given moment, he's either the happiest or most tortured person in the room. Oh, the things he could say!
Of course, Vaccaro was relieved when the plaintiffs' attorneys convinced Judge Claudia Ann Wilken that he shouldn't have to testify (he had been deposed by the NCAA). That meant he could watch the culmination of his decision seven years ago to leave the sneaker marketing industry behind and crusade against what he believed to be the NCAA's hypocrisy. He toured the country, visiting nearly 40 colleges to tell his story and point the finger at college sports' governing body.
Now, the entire nation was paying attention, and reporters from national publications converged on Oakland for the first trial in the NCAA's history. There was Vaccaro, as a line formed outside the courthouse on the opening morning, giving O'Bannon -- whom he knew when O'Bannon was a star prep basketball player on his way to UCLA -- a hug. There was Vaccaro, the first in line last week at 6:30 a.m. for NCAA president Mark Emmert's testimony.
"You had the president of the NCAA being cross-examined in a federal court on his regime," Vaccaro said that day. "This day highlights the point that the world knows what is happening in Oakland today. Whatever the judgment is, everyone is going to live with it. But at least the world has been made aware there are two sides to this story, the athletes and the people who govern them."
Vaccaro does not stop thinking about this case, what will happen if the plaintiffs win injunctive relief and can profit from their names, images and likenesses in the future.
"He's irrepressible," said plaintiffs' attorney Bill Isaacson. "It's good to have a hug at the end of the day."
Vaccaro is everywhere. Tuesday night, he and Pam went to dinner at the Oakland marina with O'Bannon and a small group of reporters. Wednesday morning, Vaccaro found himself in an elevator with NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy, making conversation with the representative from the organization which he says refused to listen to him all these years.
"How about that for surreal?" Vaccaro said. "Here I am, with the NCAA and the media. It's like, we three are intertwined. It's always been the NCAA, the media and Sonny Vaccaro."
But Vaccaro, as noticeable a presence as he has been in Oakland, says this trial is not about him. Wednesday afternoon, he sat on a bench on the courthouse lawn and tried one more time to put this moment into context. Ultimately, he says he wants a very simple thing from the NCAA.
"All the other scholarships that have been given to all these men and women for the last 50 or 60 years, they've been given to them by the football and basketball players who play college sports," Vaccaro said. "You can not deny this. They've paid the tuition of every female and male athlete in the non-revenue sports for more than 50 years. I want [the NCAA] to say 'Thank you' to the football and college basketball players."
J. Brady McCollough: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BradyMcCollough.