by Dr. Boyce Watkins
I lived through the Fab Five era within college basketball, literally breathing the same air and vicariously identifying with the brothers who brought power and style to the sport. I was approximately the same age as the five freshmen who took their team to the NCAA championship, and I even wore black socks on the court (yes, I am ashamed to admit that). An ESPN special recently took my mind back down memory lane by replaying the experience of the Fab Five and how they changed college basketball forever. To this day, there has been nothing like them, and I wouldn’t be surprised if their feat is never replicated again.
The most intriguing aspect of the Fab Five special on ESPN was not their exploits on the basketball court (which were amazing), it was the conversation about money. When these five young men stepped onto the court for the University of Michigan, they instantly became cash cows for their universities. Sales of University of Michigan merchandise went from $1.5 million per year to over $10 million per year shortly after their first season. Jalen Rose, one of the members of the Fab Five, mentioned seeing that Nike had released a sneaker named after the group, and they regularly found their academic schedules being interrupted with trips around the world to promote a brand that was making everyone rich except for their own families.
There was also talk of a “scandalous” and “unethical” relationship that the players had with Ed Martin, a Detroit man who gave financial support to the players both before and during their time at The University of Michigan. The relationship was deemed illicit, as is any relationship that gives players access to money, even if they were the ones who earned it. The NCAA works very hard to ensure that athletes and their families are kept out of the revenue stream, so they can personally maximize their own individual bank accounts. As a result of the Fab Five affiliation with Martin, the university forfeited its entire ’92-’93 season and agreed to completely disassociate itself with Chris Weber until 2013. Weber’s records are also wiped out of the books completely, among other things. In other words, the Fab Five officially doesn’t exist at the University of Michigan.
While Martin’s ties to illegal gambling are problematic, what is even more disconcerting is the NCAA’s conclusion that these young men and their families were somehow less worthy than coaches, administrators and commentators of earning income from their labor. The presence of the Fab Five at the University of Michigan was a cash cow for university administrators, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. The fact that we live in a country that advocates for the second-class citizenship and the stripping of labor rights of revenue-generating athletes and their hard-working mothers is highly un-American. Making matters worse is the reality that many of these athletes are black and brown kids who come from poor inner-city families who face debilitating economic problems on a daily basis. This will probably be the last chance many of these men have to earn this kind of money ever again, even if they do finish that degree in recreational studies that everyone seems so enthusiastic about. (I love education, but I’d be more than happy to trade a college diploma for $10 million dollars. I can always go back to school later.)
Perhaps if the NCAA were to allow college athletes access to the same labor rights that they fully expect for themselves, athletes would not be forced to violate a long list of rules in order to get a bag of groceries or dinner at a fast food restaurant (since when did groceries become reason for prosecution?). The NCAA is set to earn close to a billion dollars during March Madness this year, putting them on par with every professional sports league in the world. This money is going to go into the hands of coaches, commentators and mostly white families, all on the backs of a group of predominantly African-American athletes. The athletes are forced to endure the schedules of professional athletes, as well as tremendous pressure from the media and other financial stakeholders, which inhibits their ability to get educated.
As a college professor at universities with major athletics programs (U. Kentucky, Indiana University, The Ohio State University and Syracuse), I can assure you that the player’s ability to get an education is significantly affected by their athletics schedules. I’ve even seen players told to change their major so their academic calender can fit with their practice schedule. But even if they do graduate, this does not replace the millions that are stolen from the athlete and his family during his years on the court or field. In fact, if every player in the NCAA tournament were to receive even a fraction of the money he generates for the NCAA, the average player in the tournament would receive a check for at least three-quarters of a million dollars, with the highest-earning athletes bringing home as much $5 to $10 million for just this tournament alone (this doesn’t include fees from merchandising, concessions, ticket sales and even video games).
It’s nice to see that men like Jalen Rose (formerly of the Fab Five, who is now a commentator for ESPN) have the courage to speak out on this issue, so that young athletes from their own communities don’t have to struggle in poverty while others around them bring home wealth to their families. Black and poor people also deserve a piece of the economic pie, and it’s time that the NCAA let go of its segregationist policies. In fact, the Congressional Black Caucus should speak up on the matter at some point and question the tax exempt, nonprofit status of the professional sports league that keeps telling everyone that they are just a group of naive amateurs engaged in a recreational activity. College sports is no longer child’s play, and the billions of dollars being earned by the league needs to be re-analyzed with an eye toward equity.