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Viewpoint: Free the banners, free discussion

BY YAGO COLáS

Published February 5, 2013

Tuesday morning, The Michigan Daily reported that former Michigan men’s basketball players and “Fab Five” members Jalen Rose and Jimmy King, participating in the Student Athletic Advisory Committee’s charity fundraising event “Mock Rock,” expressed their hopes that the decade-long rift between their former teammate Chris Webber and University administrators might be healed. Both men called on Webber to approach the University and on the University to be open to a discussion regarding both the legacy of that era and the disposition of the Final Four banners — currently stored in the University’s Bentley Historical Library — earned by the team in 1992 and 1993. I write as a faculty member to endorse their call and urge University administrators to conduct a free, public discussion of the issues involved.

Last year during a fireside chat, University President Mary Sue Coleman reiterated her opposition to restoring the banners (Coleman remains opposed to raising 'Fab Five' banners in 2013, 4/11/12). She had ordered the banners removed on Nov. 7, 2002 as part of a series of sanctions the University had imposed on itself in the wake of an on-going legal investigation against Ed Martin.

Mr. Martin had admitted to running an illegal gambling ring and funneling funds from the operation in the form of loans to several University of Michigan basketball players, among them Chris Webber, a member of the 1992 and 1993 Final Four teams. An ensuing NCAA ruling instituted additional sanctions, including a 10-year dissociation of the University from the four players indicted in connection with the Martin investigation and the teams they represented. This ban will end in May 2013, offering the University an opportunity to reassess its position on, among other things, the fate of the banners.

In a part of her comments not published by the Daily, but provided by the article’s author, President Coleman stated, “We should think carefully about what this would mean.” She added what she may have intended simply as a rhetorical question: “How would you justify putting the banners back up?”

I would like to take President Coleman’s statement and question as an invitation to initiate a campus-wide dialogue on the meaning of the banners and restoring them to the rafters of Crisler Center. I agree that we “should think carefully about what this would mean,” and I would like to get the ball rolling by offering some justifications for putting the banners back up and, at least as importantly, an argument for opening the discussion to the broader Michigan community.

At the most basic level, the banners symbolize the accomplishments of the 1992 and 1993 Michigan men’s basketball teams. I believe it does a disservice to the efforts of all the members of those teams to reduce the banners’ significance to the poor choices of one member of those two squads, particularly since there’s no evidence that those choices garnered any competitive advantage to the Michigan teams, or were in any way responsible for their success. As symbols of athletic success, the banners belong in the rafters of the Crisler Center.

Of course, the meaning of the banners goes beyond this. They also symbolize the Fab Five, a group of highly recruited freshmen who were starters for Michigan throughout most of the two seasons in question. The Fab Five are widely regarded as more than simply very talented and effective basketball players. They ushered in a cultural transformation of college basketball, the impact of which has spread in every direction. It would not be too much to say that players today at every level owe something to the Fab Five.

But this impact goes beyond the well-known baggy shorts and black socks. It goes beyond their self-expressiveness and exuberance on the court. It goes beyond sports circles entirely. The Fab Five were part of a movement that unashamedly brought urban African-American culture to the center of American athletic culture. They sparked then, and continue to prompt today, urgently needed discussions of race and racism in American society. As symbols of cultural innovation and a courageous stand for diversity, the Fab Five and the banners associated with them represent the best that Michigan can be.

To many, I know, the banners represent a scandal in which the ideal of amateur athletics and the reputation of the University were sullied. For some, this may be sufficient reason to keep them out of sight.

For me, on the contrary, it’s an additional reason to put them back up.