Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Real Story about Duke and the Fab Five

By now, fans of college basketball -- or of sports in general -- have heard about the documentary about Michigan's "Fab Five," an unmatched collection of basketball talent that joined the University of Michigan basketball team at the same time.  In the documentary, one of its members -- Jalen Rose -- has choice words for Duke University and the kind of black athlete it chooses to recruit.  In his words:
"I hated Duke and I hated everything Duke stood for. Schools like Duke don't recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms."
This one quote has begun an important conversation about all kinds of things, many of them important.  Grant Hill, a black player who played for Duke during the Fab Five years, responded with an op-ed to the Times.  Michael Wilbon, of PTI fame and a columnist for the Washington Post, followed the debate with a thoughful column on ESPN about what Jalen Rose and Grant Hill share, rather than what makes them different. Chris Broussard similarly offered some very strong opinions about the issues that Rose's choice of words raise.

Until this morning, I had yet to see any discussion of what I thought -- both at the time and to this day -- was the real story behind the Fab Five.  This is from William Rhoden, writing in the Times:
My view about the Fab Five, then and now, was that these young men had chosen the right pew but had gone to the wrong church. Seen through the prism of black power and empowerment, and also from the point of view of one who attended a black college, the Fab Five had simply made a wealthy white institution wealthier and had missed a grand opportunity to catapult a historically black college or university to the mountaintop of March Madness.
Did Rose have any idea of the impact they would have had on history had they elected to attend a historically black college or university?
Yes, the stage would have been smaller, television nonexistent, at first. But the novelty of their act and then the courage of what they represented would have attracted attention. The Fab Five would have been the story of March Madness, not simply a spectacle.
Americans love the underdog; we also respect those who stand for principle. What a grand stand that would have been for the Fab Five.
This was a rare opportunity, one that may have resonated for generations. Rose, Webber, Howard, King and Jackson could have done something revolutionary.
This idea crosses my mind every recruiting season, when scores of high school athletes choose where to play college football and basketball.  To ask a high school athlete to think beyond himself and towards some semblance of the greater good, to think in revolutionary ways, is really hard.  I get that.

More interestingly, I also get the analogy to the colorblind argument of old.  That is, to even suggest the possibility that a high school student should choose a college on the basis of race might rankle colorblind purists, as this is hardly getting us to move towards a colorblind world. 

Note, however, the beauty of the colorblind argument: to ask that race not be mentioned or considered at all is to ensure that race will always matter in ways that are not beneficial to people of color.  To ask that players not consider race when applying for college is to ensure that white coaches and white institutions will continue to benefit from the labor of scores of black athletes who are readily and summarily discarded when their labor is no longer needed or useful.

I still cannot help but think: what if?

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