This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and it took at least that to bring down the NCAA.
There were the former athletes, like Ed O’Bannon and Shawne Alston, who put their names on historic lawsuits. There were the lawyers, Michael Hausfeld and Jeffrey Kessler and more, who led the fight in the courtrooms, winning far more than they lost. There was U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken, who saw through the NCAA’s nonsense and handed down a landmark decision in the O’Bannon case. There was Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who pushed to unionize college athletes. There were also the media members, Jay Bilas, Taylor Branch, Lowell Bergman and others, who in their own ways highlighted the association’s hypocrisy in the past and in the present, helping sway a public that had long accepted the NCAA’s version of the truth.
While the NCAA it still operating and Mark Emmert is still defending its model, there is little doubt that the association will never be the same after the events of 2014. This past year was the beginning of its end, and the individuals who made that happen should be SI’s Sportspersons of the Year.
To be sure, not all of their work fell exclusively in 2014. For some, this has been a long fight. But this was the year that everything coalesced, when all that chipping away finally exposed the NCAA’s foundation as a façade.
It is unfair to highlight one crusader more than another, as they all played an important role, but let me pick a favorite: Sonny Vaccaro, the former shoe company executive. Vaccaro who, in full disclosure, I have known for nearly 20 years and who featured prominently in a book I wrote, Play Their Hearts Out, is an imperfect hero. His introduction of the shoe deal into college basketball hastened the commercialism and corruption of collegiate sports. But later in life Vaccaro became determined to help athletes get the compensation they deserved. You can diminish it as a last-ditch effort to rewrite his legacy, but it would be foolish to downplay his role.
For several years, he went from campus to campus and gave talks focused on the history and hypocrisy of the NCAA, challenging young people to view the association through clear eyes. It was a grassroots attempt -- from the guy who basically invented grassroots basketball -- to stir change. From these talks, he compiled a sort of anecdotal antitrust case against the NCAA, which he later brought to the attention of Hausfeld, who would file the landmark O’Bannon lawsuit.
NCAA officials have long lambasted Vaccaro as one of the great corrupters of its precious amateurism, and so there is some sweet irony in the fact he played a huge role in shattering that ethos.
If Vaccaro’s past makes him too imperfect to embrace, focus on another of The Crusaders. Go with Bilas, whose relentless pounding of the NCAA on Twitter and elsewhere has opened many eyes, or Branch or Bergman, who led the way in getting people outside the bubble of sports to see that the NCAA has been mythmaking all along. Or, go with Colter, who defied his school and his coaches when he pushed to allow athletes to unionize, no small step.
You can’t go wrong saluting any of The Crusaders. Because of them, the NCAA will look very, very different in the years to come. Eventually, after more lawsuits and appeals, after more and more pressure, college athletes will be paid something close to market rate. They won’t be penalized for something as benign as selling their autograph. They won’t be vilified for hawking a product. That shift won’t come tomorrow, but it is coming sooner than you think, and for that we have The Crusaders to thank.