Chris Webber, the Fab Five, and Basketball Corruption

Today, May 8, 2013 is the day Chris Webber is no longer “disassociated” from University of Michigan activities. This is not to say he has been reinstated to represent the university, but rather talks, and hopefully healing, can now begin.

Growing up in Michigan, where my grandfather and father both attended the university, I bled Maize and Blue. Naturally I idolized the Fab Five from the time they began attending Michigan in 1991. I watched, enraptured, as Michigan made the NCAA finals in both 1992 and 1993. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson became something like distant relatives to me, because I spent so much time following every move they made (in a pre-social media world).

I was heartbroken to hear and read about the money and gifts Chris Webber (among others) received from Ed Martin, and how these tarnished the university. The worst symbolic effect was the taking down of the Final Four banners, NIT championship banner, and Big Ten Tournament Championship banner from the rafters of Crisler Arena. For years, I was disappointed that Chris Webber would bring such shame and scrutiny to this great university (of which I am now an alumnus). As the years have gone on, I have softened a bit. I don’t justify what Ed Martin or Chris Webber did, but I also do not hold them 100% responsible.

Now that the 10 year disassociation with Webber has ended, I sincerely hope the university will reach out to Webber, reconcile, and re-establish recognition (let’s hang some banners back in the Crisler Center) for the efforts all of the members of the Fab Five gave to the university. Jalen Rose has been very vocal about his perceptions of the scandal, because he feels the other members of the Fab Five are being punished for the acts of one, which does not seem to be justifiable. He has a point.

In addition, I am ready to see the university and the NCAA take responsibility for their part in creating the atmosphere that allows kids to be placed in this sort of position. Currently, there are severe, and antiquated, restrictions on college athletes with regards to what kinds of contact, gifts, and payment they can receive while they are student-athletes. Colleges and universities offer a valuable, free education, along with expenses paid for athletes while these kids are in the care of the university, but is that enough?

Right now middle school and high school kids are being attracted to AAU teams through shoes and jerseys. Along the way, these kids get expenses paid for with regards to tournaments, and they also get other payments (in certain cases) if needed. The vast majority of these go unreported, because the player would be declared ineligible for college athletics at that point. For the most part, these payments are not bribes, but rather a helping hand to kids who are in real need. In other cases, adults are certainly crossing a line with payments and gifts – trying to gain influence in a child’s life so they can further be compensated later on. Yet, we punish the kids who are involved, or perhaps the teammates of the kids involved, instead of the adults who make this culture a required passage before the kid can reach their dreams.

This is where I come in with Webber. According to reports he accepted gifts and payments from Ed Martin going back to the time when he was in Middle School. My question is this – how was a 13 or 14 year old Chris Webber supposed to know the broad reaching consequences of receiving gifts at this young of an age? Why is he the one held responsible for these indiscretions? Also, these events began in the 1980s, yet the culture for youth basketball and college basketball has only become more greedy and corrupt in the last 25 years. The answer the NCAA gives – punish the school sports programs and the kids. When are we going to hold adults responsible for this culture? When is it going to be important enough for us to hold responsible those who are responsible for this? AAU coaches, shoe companies, the NCAA, sports agents, boosters, parents. Why are they not being brought into this conversation?

Also, from 1991 to 1993, when Chris Webber was the star for the university, how many of his jerseys were sold? How many times did the TV networks use his image to sell an upcoming game to viewers? How much money was made off of Chris Webber? How much of that trickled down to him or the other members of the Fab Five? The NCAA holds a double standard when it comes to student-athletes. The athletes themselves cannot be paid, but there is no limit to how much money can be made off of them. This appears so hypocritical in light of the level of punishment the NCAA levies against players and programs (particularly innocent players who get to pay the punishment by not being eligible for tournaments long after the offending player has left). It appears that the NCAA is holding children to a higher standard of conduct than they are willing to hold themselves. Why is this not being addressed?

In light of that, I now ask, what will the University of Michigan do? Chris Webber has served his sentence. The university made a ton of money off the Fab Five back in the 1990s, and they too had to serve the sentence of probation with the NCAA. As we stand today, all of that is history. It is time to put that where it belongs, in the past. Let’s move forward in reconciliation and healing for the parties involved. Let’s give the Fab Five the recognition they deserve – you can’t wipe away the games that were played, not matter how much you try to “vacate” them. Let’s learn from the mistakes kids like Chris Webber have made, work to change the culture of amateur athletes, and set a new example for the future. I challenge the University of Michigan to lead the way in setting a new standard of conduct for the NCAA. Live up to your credo – be the Leaders. Be the Best. Go Blue!