SportsMonday Column: Fab Five still shape the conversation

The Michigan basketball teams return to the Nike uniforms with black socks and black shoes this year, the look established by the trend-setting Fab Five.

The Michigan basketball teams return to the Nike uniforms with black socks and black shoes this year, the look established by the trend-setting Fab Five.
Zach Moore/Daily

 

Sunday, October 2, 2016 - 6:52pm

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Today, they might not stand out.

Five young black men in baggy shorts, black shoes and black socks with shaved heads isn’t a rarity on the basketball court. Not anymore, at least.

When the Fab Five burst into college basketball 25 years ago, that swaggering style was likened to thuggery. Now, it is as much a part of the game as free throws and Dick Vitale.

Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Ray Jackson, Juwan Howard and Chris Webber didn’t just shake up the college hoops landscape, they put it in a blender and left it running for two years. The culture of basketball has shifted in the time since, moving (if ever so slowly) away from norms that call for obedience and order instead of personality.

But as symbolic and powerful as a pair of black socks can be, they can only go so far. Two more symbols used to hang from the Crisler Center rafters. The reason they don’t anymore can be traced back to what was then, and still is, the plight of college athletes.

Marred by an improper benefits scandal that saw the physical embodiments of their time in Ann Arbor torn from the rafters, the Fab Five was temporarily disassociated from the University. But that’s no reason to stop learning from their time here.

They remain one of, if not the single, most significant examples of the conflicts between race, money and power in college sports. Saturday, three of the group’s members (Jackson, King and Rose) will visit campus for a public discussion about their legacy, bringing along a history so heavy and complicated it might not fit in Hill Auditorium.

It’s a discussion that shouldn’t need its own special event, but almost inarguably does.

King, Rose and Jackson will join LSA Professor Yago Colas; as well as journalist Kevin Blackistone, who is a visiting professor at University of Maryland; and University of Houston Professor Billy King at Hill Auditorium for a public discussion called “Fab 5 at 25.” Colas will moderate the event, asking questions to the panelists himself first and then opening it up for questions from the public. The event is scheduled to last two hours. But what comes of it could endure much longer.

“I think what would feel best for me is for this to kind of kick off a conversation, or a series of conversations, that could occur over time on campus about some of the issues that, I think, the team and thinking about the team raise,” Colas said. “Specifically issues of race within college sports, especially in big-time college sports, and the related issues of money in college sports, educational opportunity in college sports for athletes.”

The history of the group has been well chronicled. In addition to their phenom statuses as freshmen, those five players’ radical defiance of the standards to which their predecessors and peers were held changed the culture of the sport. But today, that legacy seems outweighed by what came after they were gone.

The Ed Martin scandal rocked the Fab Five’s public perception and temporarily severed its ties with the University. Both wounds are only now really beginning to heal. The Fab Five’s perception is forever shaded by attitudes about their attitudes, critiques that might not have been heard about white players asserting the same intent to control their image. And, of course, the power dynamics that see college athletes generate so much interest and revenue but aren’t allowed to take home a penny of it.

Those issues have only increased in importance in the time since the Fab Five left campus. At a time when the debate of whether college athletes ought to be paid rages strongly, the Fab Five’s story is as important as ever. Someday, the benefits causing the scandal may no longer be deemed improper. 

Presumably, some students will be in attendance Saturday, some who are athletes and some who aren’t. Colas thinks both groups will have plenty to take away from the event, but for those who fill the bleachers on game days, there could be something extra to gain.

“I guess in a certain way, I do feel that, just because there are more students who aren’t athletes … I’d say there’s more urgency to the sort of vast number of students who are fans of Michigan athletes, to hear the stories of athletes and open themselves up to the experience emotionally of recognizing the humanity of the athlete,” Colas said.

Even while Jalen Rose calls for re-hanging the banners that were taken down in the wake of the Martin scandal, there is other change at stake on Saturday, change that extends beyond the rafters of Crisler Center. What that looks like remains to be seen. Colas said that after the event, the organizers will look at the reaction and go from there.

And even with the urgency Colas referenced, there’s still time for nuanced thought. Debates on money, race, power and amateurism aren’t going away, and this event invites Michigan back to the center of them.

No one is saying that these are issues that can be solved with a conversation. But they can’t be solved without one.