While Trey Burke, John Wall’s new backup, bemoaned his experience at Michigan before a panel of college athletics’ influencers at the Newseum on Monday, people in Ann Arbor, Mich., who hope to run his alma mater made an evolutionary revelation: They want Michigan to return the Final Four banners it removed from its basketball arena more than a decade ago after an investigation found a booster paid so-called amateur players, including former Wizards forward Chris Webber, hundreds of thousands of dollars to play a so-called amateur sport, college basketball, which nonetheless reaps millions.
How disingenuous was that?
I’m no Michigan man, but the banners honoring the Fab Five — as the early-1990s basketball team led by freshmen Webber; Jalen Rose; another former Wizards standout, Juwan Howard; Jimmy King and Ray Jackson was nicknamed — should be returned to their rightful public place, and not only as acknowledgment for what those players did for Michigan. They should be hung again because it is the height of hypocrisy in college sports to castigate athletes for profiting from their stardom while allowing everyone else in their game to do so with sanctioned impunity.
Indeed, that thought rippled through yet another annual discussion of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics where Burke appeared, and in the campaign that hopeful new Michigan regents, who are elected, raised as they presented their vision for the university in a public forum. In particular, Laurence Deitch and John Jascob said it was time the university examined the role of athletics in its educational mission and the contributions made to it by its athletes.
It is a discussion college athletics everywhere needs to engage now more than ever.
After all, the Knight Commission pointed out Monday that revenues for the five major conferences in college sports — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Southeastern Conference — that were $570 million in 2005 will be $2.8 billion by 2020.
Yet, the remuneration for the athletes who make it all possible through sweat and blood has increased incrementally, at best, rather than commensurately. Athletic scholarships, which many of you had been brought to believe covered the full cost of a college education, actually do now. The training table food that Burke said was not substantial is more plentiful. A few more bucks are provided for things like travel money to visit a sick loved one.
There has been a need for a redistribution of wealth in college sports for a long time, but it may never have been laid barer than by the Fab Five, who Burke mentioned fondly on Monday. For the Fab Five were transformed before our eyes from teenaged basketball players into marketable commodities, yet remained alienated from the profits they produced.
I was reminded of it all a couple of weekends ago as a participant in a panel discussion at Michigan about the Fab Five’s legacy 25 years later. Rose, King and Jackson were there. Howard sent a video from Miami, where he is an assistant coach with the NBA’s Heat.
Webber, however, refused an invitation. He doesn’t get along with Rose and is still burned by the university removing his team’s banners from Crisler Center and accepting a penalty from the NCAA that included the university making him a persona non grata for 10 years. A gambling case revealed that Ed Martin, a Michigan booster, paid Webber — maybe as much as $200,000 — while he played at Michigan for two seasons, a violation of the NCAA’s rule allowing everyone in college sports — except the athletic labor — to be paid. Webber lied to a grand jury about his relationship with Martin and pled guilty to criminal contempt in order to avoid jail time. Martin died in 2003. This hypocrisy, however, has lived on.
With a nod to John Thompson’s Patrick Ewing-led Hoyas of the early ’80s, there hasn’t been a greater spectacle for the economic ascendancy of college basketball — if not college sports — than the Fab Five. It wasn’t just that they were so good that they won 56 games in two seasons and played in consecutive championship games as freshmen and sophomores. It was that they did it all with style and swagger.
Like Georgetown, they popularized style. The Hoyas made wearing T-shirts under basketball jerseys cool and Starter jackets commonplace on the streets. The Fab Five adopted Michael Jordan’s on-the-court fashion trend of baggy shorts. They soon paired those with black socks at a time when every basketball player since Naismith invented the game wore white.
Then, they shaved their heads, in homage to Jordan.
And it all brought in money. More money, more quickly than Michigan basketball realized when it won a national championship a few years earlier. The Fab Five doubled revenues for the basketball team to more than $4 million in their freshman season alone. By 1994, the year after they essentially broke up following Webber’s departure to the NBA, their popularity led Michigan to become one of the first college sports programs to sign a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with a sports apparel company, Nike. Until then, it was just college coaches who were rewarded with such deals.
Last year, a dozen years after Michigan defrocked Webber and the Fab Five, Michigan signed a 15-year deal with Nike for upward of $170 million. It was reported then to be the largest such deal ever in college sports.
When the 10-year ban against Webber expired, then-Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said the banners wouldn’t return until Webber apologized to his school. But if anyone in college athletics deserves an apology, it’s the athletes who still haven’t received their fair slice of the bread.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.