ATLANTA – On Friday, adidas decided to pull a controversial T-shirt that used the story of Louisville guard Kevin Ware's shattered leg to promote its latest marketing slogan – a particularly loathsome move even for the shoe industry and college sports.
The shirt featured adidas' new mantra, "Rise To the Occasion." Only the "s" in "Rise" is shaped like a Louisville No. 5, the same number worn by Ware, who broke his leg in last Sunday's Midwest Region final. The number is also on the back of the shirt. You could buy one for $24.99.
Louisville acknowledged the "5" stood for Ware, which put the NCAA in violation of its own bizarre rules and opened itself up to potential legal action. So it's likely that legal liability – not found conscience – is what stopped sales of the T-shirt. USA Today first reported the decision to halt sales.
The fact that it took days to occur and no one at either Louisville or the NCAA was able or willing to halt the campaign immediately remains the story, though. The credibility damage was already done.
And it drives home why college sports through its forever arrogance has put its entire business model at risk as the potential landmark O'Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit churns on with the capability of sending everything into chaos. Rather than bend and seek compromise, it allowed a corporate partner to exploit a brutal injury of an unpaid "amateur."
This former issue dates back to 1977, when a then-high school all-star game promoter named Sonny Vaccaro sat in a meeting at a fledgling sneaker company named Nike, which specialized in running shoes and desperately wanted to get into the lucrative basketball market.
In Nike's old, humble headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., Vaccaro looked across the table at founder Phil Knight and executive Rob Strasser and laid out the plan: pay college coaches to make their players wear Nike shoes, T-shirts and sweats that the company would provide for free.
Vaccaro's point was simple: forget the small change of getting some university to buy the product; the fact Nike will be associated with great programs will pay dividends in the end. Mostly by constructing a powerhouse brand.
"I remember I told them specifically, 'if we ever get our logo on the cover of Sports Illustrated, then we've won everything, everyone will know who Nike is,'" Vaccaro recalled to Yahoo! Sports on Friday. "You can't buy that kind of advertising."
Knight and Strasser were immediate believers in the concept, then revolutionary at the time. They empowered Vaccaro to go sign up some coaches.
Soon Jerry Tarkanian of UNLV agreed to a contract for $5,000. "I thought Sonny was crazy," Tark said. "You're going to pay me to take free stuff that I currently have to pay for?" Within a couple years, John Thompson and the iconic Georgetown Hoyas were in the Nike family.
Everything blew up from there. Nike made a lot of Sports Illustrated covers … and attracted a lot of controversy over the deals.
Vaccaro, now retired, eventually took a job at adidas. In 2001 he signed Rick Pitino, who had just been hired by the University of Louisville. The Cardinals remain an adidas school as they prepare here for a Final Four game Saturday against Wichita State.
They did it just as adidas decided to sell that Kevin Ware t-shirt, a decision that churns Vaccaro's stomach.
Ware became famous Sunday when trying to block a shot against Duke. He landed awkwardly and suffered a gruesome compound fracture of his right tibia. In the days since, Ware has conducted himself with class, dignity and courage. He's been rightfully cheered.
Selling a T-shirt that capitalizes on an injury to a college kid, who lives under strict rules inline with the NCAA's definition of "amateurism", is undeniably loathsome. However, that didn't stop adidas from immediately taking it to market, of course. When has it ever cared about anything except the bottom line?
[Y! Sports Radio: Joe Theismann 'felt so bad' for Kevin Ware]
The distaste was so obvious U of L said it was refusing any proceeds from shirt sales and instead adidas would donate to the school's general scholarship fund. That is proof the school knew this is wrong in the first place but didn't step up to stop it. It is also just a smokescreen to hide the larger point: adidas doesn't pay millions to Louisville because of T-shirt sales. Any revenue generated that way is a pittance and not the point of the partnership.
The deal is, and has always been, about the exposure that the school can provide the company. In this case, the value for adidas isn't some T-shirts but the chance to further brand, in a quite powerful and perfect way, the slogan "Rise To The Occasion." And who better to do that than this heroic kid who has quite literally done just that since breaking his leg on national television?
"The price you pay is basically for whatever happens while the players are playing," Vaccaro said. "It's more powerful than any commercial because viewers won't pay that level of attention to the commercials."
Where the adidas deal goes to another level is the use of Ware's No. 5. While criticism of uncompensated players being used as human billboards is nothing new – and mostly an established norm at this point – this is different.
It's one thing when Nike was hoping to get the vision of a UNLV player soaring across the cover of SI and having its swoosh make the photo. That is sort of secondhand branding. We provide the sneaker and maybe people notice.
What adidas did with Ware was insert he and his story directly into the slogan – replacing one of the letters with his number. Since NCAA rules prevent an individual player from being used directly, [Ware's name can't be used] this was the option, and it's a brilliant one.
You couldn't make Ware more a part of the advertisement – which is what the slogan on an official T-shirt is. It's impossible. He's in the slogan. You could say he is the slogan.
Ware wasn't chosen because he was the Cardinals' best player. He was a reserve who averaged 4.5 points and 1.8 rebounds a game. Only hardcore U of L fans had ever heard of him.
No, Ware was placed directly into adidas' massive advertising push for its new slogan solely because he broke his leg on live television. That's it. His injury was deemed a marketing opportunity by a billion-dollar multinational company and neither his university nor the NCAA dared to protect him from the exploitation.
He got no money from it. He had no ability to approve the use of his injury in the deal. It just happened anyway.
As Dave Zirin of The Nation put it: "I shattered my leg at the NCAA tournament and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
A federal judge in Northern California will decide in June whether to certify the O'Bannon v. NCAA lawsuit as a class-action suit. Ed O'Bannon, who once led UCLA to a national title, sued the NCAA in 2009 over the continued use of his likeness in video games and advertising. He's been joined by a who's who of former college greats and the case has morphed into an attack on the NCAA's business model.
If the suit gains class status, the NCAA is in a world of trouble, it's revenue system turned upside down. There is mass fretting over the ramifications, from dropping sports, to cutting salaries, to, in the sworn prediction of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, taking his league to Division III.
Everyone is spouting anger at Ed O'Bannon and his mean attorneys who may ruin this entire glorious, cash-rich system.
If the NCAA is doomed though, it's not because O'Bannon and others finally stood up and fought back. [It's worth noting that Vaccaro is an unpaid consultant on the case.] Rather the NCAA will crumble because of its overabundance of arrogance coupled with its profound lack of awareness.
The O'Bannon case raised a number of sound issues. Should the NCAA really be able to sell Oscar Robertson memorabilia 53 years after he left school without his approval, let alone receiving a cut? Isn't there a revenue-sharing system since the basic tuition, room and board deal for athletes was created long before networks formed their own cable networks? Shouldn't there be a way for extremely popular players such as Tim Tebow or Johnny Manziel to get a cut eventually of huge jersey sales?
Instead of considering those and acting, the NCAA has gone totalitarian and given little to no ground, while pushing itself into a potential all-or-nothing legal spat.
Then in the meantime, they display not a lick of perspective, to the point that everyone sits quietly as Kevin Ware and his mangled leg become the centerpiece of an adidas marketing plan.
It's not that people inside college athletics, or U of L specifically in this case, don't know better. They do. Most care a great deal about the athletes and want what's best. It's the system that is so out of hand that they are powerless to stop it. It's that they live in a bubble where everything is a potential revenue center. The train just keeps rumbling down the tracks, crushing the well-intentioned.
The NCAA can hardly even recognize how far gone it's gotten, how far from what was once a controversy when John Thompson told Patrick Ewing to wear Nikes. Now no one and nothing bothers to tell adidas, no, not this time, not with this kid.
Not when a brand can be built off of a broken leg.
It took lawyers to step in and the uproar of common sense to rise up before anything happened.
"They are choking themselves," Vaccaro said, "on greed."
That's what will kill college sports, not Ed O'Bannon. The indefensible decisions of more, more, more that turns a player's pain into shoe-company profit.
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