NEW YORK – Sonny Vaccaro thinks the NBA's age limit is un-American, and he's telling anyone who will listen.
"I honestly believe (the age limit) is the most un-American thing I've ever seen," Vaccaro, 68, said during a recent interview. "The very fact that (NBA commissioner) David Stern and (NCAA president) Myles Brand can so flippantly suggest that they'll raise it another year at the expense of individuals' rights to work is not annoying anymore. It's arrogance at its peak, and it does not take into consideration the individuals that are involved."
High schoolers to high fliers
Kobe Bryant, shown here dunking at Lower Merion High School, was the first guard ever drafted out of high school to the NBA. With the current age restriction Bryant, and the many others, would have had to play in college. Check out this photo gallery of several NBA players in their high school days.
Vaccaro, the man who revolutionized grass-roots basketball and the marketing of basketball stars to multi-million dollar sneaker deals, has a new passion in life. Having retired from the camp business, Vaccaro is busy petitioning for the repeal of the NBA minimum age limit of 19. He also thinks college athletes should be paid for their services.
Vaccaro pioneered the practice of paying college coaches to outfit their teams in shoe-company apparel while working for Nike. He left Nike in 1992 to join rival adidas, taking his all-star game, AAU tournament and summer camp with him. He later worked for Reebok.
Former Sopranos star James Gandolfini has signed to play Vaccaro in a forthcoming HBO movie entitled "ABCD Camp."
Vaccaro spoke last week at the NFL offices in Manhattan, an event sponsored by the Columbia University Graduate Program in Sports Management.
"I'm very happy to say I've aligned myself with new people who are not of the sports world – the academicians, the professors and the people who are looking for change in college athletics," Vaccaro said.
The NBA's age limit went into effect for the first time with the 2007 draft. The rule says American-born players have to wait one year after their high school class graduates before they can become draft-eligible. Stern, with Brand's support, may be looking to extend that age minimum further, prohibiting players from entering the pros until they're two years out of high school. Such a change would have to be approved by the NBA Players Association in the next collective bargaining agreement.
Neither Stern nor Brand was available for comment, but both expounded on their views in an interview with CBS during the Final Four.
"Raising the entry age to 19 years was done because the NBA deemed it in its best interest," Stern said. "The incidental benefit was, I think, to assist the NCAA game and to see these extraordinarily gifted kids at the end of their first year really treating America to terrific basketball."
Vaccaro has met with Sen. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and hopes to ultimately petition Congress to repeal the age limit.
"I think you should be able to come out whenever somebody wants to pay you," Vaccaro said. "It's no different than the golf girl, the tennis person, the soccer kids. They should have the opportunity to come out when they're 5 years old.
"If a pro team wants to pay them, then they should be able to come out."
Head of the class
Michael Beasley has said that his time in Manhattan was very rewarding and that college life has matured him and made him ready for the NBA. Our Rivals.com experts debate whether Beasley or Mayo would be the better bet with the No. 2 pick read more here.
Vaccaro points to the players likely to be chosen at the top of this year's NBA Draft – Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon and Kevin Love – and says they have something in common: They were all college freshmen who likely would have been picked at the top of the 2007 draft straight out of high school. So, Vaccaro asks, what exactly did these players get out of a year in college? Certainly not a real education, he argues. And what if, conversely, Greg Oden - last year's No. 1 pick - had been injured before the draft as opposed to after it?
"The term student-athlete…doesn't have meaning when you accept somebody knowing all he's going to do is play 40 basketball games for your team and hopefully get to the Final Four," Vaccaro said. "It has nothing to do with academics. And some of them won't even finish this semester. That's sinful."
Beasley said he was opposed to the age limit, but that it may have helped him grow a little bit.
"I think kids should have the right (to go pro from high school), but I have no control over it," Beasley said during a recent interview. "College helped me a lot. It matured me. It taught me things other than basketball."
Vaccaro said an age limit serves to keep the top players in college, where they help perpetuate the multimillion dollar "reality series" known as the NCAA Tournament, benefiting big-time colleges and CBS - not the players themselves.
To offset the "exploitation" of college athletes he says is inherent in the status quo, Vaccaro and his former ABCD lieutenant, Gary Charles, favor paying high-level college athletes.
"The U.S. government allows students to get financial aid, so why can't athletes get some money?" asked Charles, director of the New York Panthers travel team. "If the athletes cannot go to work because they have a full schedule, why can't the school find a way to give him certain money? I'm not saying a lot of money, but a lot of these guys need some money just to go do their laundry, get a slice of pizza if they want to.
"Instead of them cutting their own deal under the table, if we do it that way (paying college athletes) some of the things that are going on now that are illegal wouldn't happen."
Vaccaro said he would be in favor of having colleges set aside $20,000-$25,000 for student-athletes who stayed in school to complete their degrees.
"Now we know it's not going to affect Michael Beasley and Kevin Love and O.J. Mayo and Derrick Rose because they're going to go get their money in the pros, but let's give it to the guys who played through for four or five years," Vaccaro said. "Why can't we give them a kick-start? That would be a hell of a nice gesture."