“The Fab Five”: The Missing Media Conversation


The University of Michigan's "Fab Five": King, Howard, Webber, Rose, & Jackson (from l to r)

Spoiler Alert: I include some details in this post about the Fab Five documentary, so sorry if I include some spoilers (I had to in order to prove my points).

I’m not one to usually tune into anything on ESPN, but after hearing all the media hoopla surrounding Jalen Rose’s “Uncle Tom” comments about Grant Hill and other Black ball players at Duke in the Fab Five documentary, I had to see it. But, what I got out of it was something different than all the sound bytes suggested I would. I’m not #TeamHill or #TeamRose by any means, because I understand where both men stand. I understand why Rose felt as he did as an 18 year old. I also understand why such comments would compel Grant Hill to write an op-ed response in The New York Times, too. Basically, I believe that this conversation all boils down to an identity crisis in the Black community, particularly among Black males, about who or what is truly Black – a conversation that needs to be had.

Since I’ve read so many interesting takes on this particular matter, I don’t want to contribute to the clutter. Instead, I would like to see the conversation in the media shift to a topic I think is as equally important to identity that this documentary does a great job of covering provocatively: economic disempowerment and exploitation by the NCAA. I think this, among other things in the documentary, is getting overlooked because of sensationalistic sound bytes.

I’m baffled that we’re not talking about this because it needs to be discussed. The Fab Five  brought more than just “swag”  and “style” to the NCAA basketball court. The 5 five starting freshmen also brought millions of dollars into the University of Michigan because of that very “swag,” popularity and pure talent. But while the dollars were flowing to the University, the Fab Five saw none of that (I mean if you want to argue that Chris Webber did, I digress. He did eventually, but I’m hard-pressed to believe that he saw substantial amounts from U of M himself. It’s my understanding that a booster fronted him the cash he is sanctioned from – not the University). Everything from $75 jerseys, baggy shorts, and trading cards to custom sneakers, t-shirts, hats, black socks, and everything else under the sun were sold because of the Fab Five. In fact, according to documentary, Michigan made $10.5 million from merchandise royalties (up from $1.6 million after the team’s 1989 NCAA championship win) without having won NCAA championships during the Fab Five’s reign. All the while, though, Fab Five members, like Webber and Rose, had to scrape to get by by borrowing a “coupla dollas” here and there from friends to even buy pizza or to put gas in their beat up hoopties cars (like Jalen Rose’s old Dodge Shadow).

Sure, these were college basketball players that agreed to abide by the NCAA rules before they signed up to play for U of M. Sure, they received tuition remission from the university in exchange for playing on Michigan’s basketball team. And sure, I’m convinced that these players received some perks in the U of M community (like more tacos, according to Jimmy King) because of their popularity. But all of that doesn’t explain away the bottom-line: that these players and many other players before and after them were and are still being exploited economically by the NCAA.

What I was impressed by in this documentary was the Fab Five’s eventual awareness of their exploitation. Freshman year was all fun, games, and hard work on the court to prove that they could and should be the starting line-up for the U of M team. However, by their sophomore year and after an eye-opening trip to Europe, these young men became more mindful of who was getting paid (legally) for all their hard work – and it wasn’t them. In fact, Rose remembers feeling “like a professional athlete that wasn’t getting paid.” So, in protest, they wore plain blue warm up shirts without the Nike icon and without the University of Michigan icon. The Fab Five realized they were simply “cogs in a wheel” of economic oppression, and I can’t help but to agree. In fact, I will go so far to say that the Fab Five’s popularity was the catalyst for such blatant exploitation by the NCAA that still goes on today.

So, I would like to see the media’s conversation shift to this idea of economic exploitation in the NCAA and whether or not NCAA players should receive some type of compensation in addition to tuition remission for making these universities millions. I think that the attention to the Fab Five documentary provides us with a good opportunity to raise these issues again, because it’s only getting worse. Some may argue that the Fab Five all went on to make the big bucks in the NBA eventually, but what about those players who don’t get a chance to go on to showcase their talents professionally? Sure, they may have a college degree (if they’re lucky enough to graduate and if the university supports them academically as much as they do athletically during their time in college) to fall back on, but how is it fair that these coaches and other people get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, and these players can’t see a red cent?

I think it’s funny that these athletes have to abide by the strict rules of the NCAA forbidding them to take money of any kind from anyone associated with the NCAA – including borrowing money to buy a bite to eat or get a winter coat – while the NCAA and the universities that attach themselves to these same star athletes are making out like fat rats and raking in millions of dollars. I think that – not some kids playing ball for a college education taking money here and there to survive because they’re not getting fairly compensated – is what’s most morally reprehensible…

What do you think? Do you believe NCAA division I players should get paid in some way for playing? Why or why not?


One response »

  1. The argument to pay college athletes is invalid because if they had to pay the athletes it would cost way more than the colleges can pay. And what about the smaller schools in the NCAA that dont bring as much money from athletics how are they going to pay

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