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The Impact Of Michigan's 'Fab 5' On The Social Milieu Of College Sports


The college basketball season is approaching. On Friday, pre-season team practices become an event called Midnight Madness, which is made for TV. It's the latest way that colleges and TV networks make money from an amateur sport. Commentator Kevin Blackistone looks back a quarter-century to players who took the big money in college ball and made it bigger.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: They were five Michigan freshmen - Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson - who we in the media nicknamed the Fab Five. Man, could they play. In two seasons together, they won a total of 56 games, losing just 15, including two national championship games. Then they scattered. Webber was the number one pick in the 1993 NBA draft.

Howard and Rose went in the first round a year later. But it wasn't just their talent that etched them in our memory. It was their swagger. They adopted an on-the-court fashion trend started by Michael Jordan in the late '80s - baggy shorts. They soon paired those with black socks, when every player had worn white since Naismith invented the game. They even shaved their heads. That swagger, those wins, it all brought in money - gobs of it.

They helped double revenues for the basketball team to over $4 million dollars in their freshman season. By 1994, their popularity led Michigan to become one of the first college sports programs to sign a multi-million-dollar endorsement deal with Nike. Last year, Michigan signed a 15-year deal with Nike, this one for upwards of $170 million. Last weekend, I was in Michigan for a symposium on the Fab Five's impact on the social milieu of college sports. But beyond that conversation, there was little evidence on campus that they even existed.

Rose, King and Jackson were at the symposium. Howard sent a video from Miami, where he is an assistant coach with the NBA's Heat. Webber, however, refused, burned still by the university removing the Fab Five's Final Four banners from the team's home arena and accepting a penalty from the NCAA that included a 10-year ban on even associating with Webber. A gambling case revealed that a Michigan booster paid Webber over $200,000 while he played in Michigan, something he then fibbed about to a grand jury.

But it all laid bare the disingenuousness of the economic relationship between athletes and the schools for which they essentially work. The Fab Five were transformed from basketball players into marketable commodities, but were alienated from the profits they produced. I'm no Michigan man, but it is time to return the Fab Five's banners to their rightful public place, not only as acknowledgement for what they earned from Michigan, but because it is the height of hypocrisy in college sports to castigate athletes for profiting from their celebrity while allowing everyone else in the game to do so with sanctioned impunity.


INSKEEP: Kevin Blackistone is a columnist for The Washington Post and teaches journalism at the University of Maryland Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.