Commentary

No Chris Webber apology needed

Updated: March 16, 2011, 2:36 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

During the height of their popularity, the Fab Five didn't make any apologies for the brash way they played or the obnoxious way they sometimes behaved.

[+] EnlargeChris Webber
AP Photo/Susan RaganChris Webber left Michigan for the NBA after two trips to the Final Four in two seasons.

So why make any apologies now?

I'm referring specifically to Chris Webber, a core member of the iconic freshman class at Michigan that changed the culture of college basketball forever.

If you watched ESPN's documentary on the Fab Five on Sunday, you probably noticed Webber wasn't a part of the two-hour special, which drew the highest ratings of any ESPN documentary.

Webber declined to be in the film, and his absence instantly stirred debate about his fractured relationship with Michigan.

The documentary created a growing sense that Webber and Michigan should bury the past.

Jimmy King, Webber's teammate starting in fall 1991, said on ESPN's "First Take" on Monday: "I would say that he does owe the university an apology because it is a fractured relationship. He didn't necessarily do anything that he has to apologize for, but this is what I was taught: Sometimes you have to apologize for things you didn't even do to be the bigger person about it and put things to rest."

This is the most polite way I can put this: Oh hell no.

I'm certainly not going to sugarcoat Webber's involvement with now-deceased booster Ed Martin, a relationship that not only leveled Michigan's program, but also permanently changed perceptions of Webber.

According to indictment in the case, Webber took hundreds of thousands of dollars from Martin and lied to federal investigators about it. He knew the rules. He broke them. And he deserved to be punished for it.

Although I understand King's point about how closure might help both Webber and Michigan move on, the idea of Webber asking for forgiveness from Michigan is absurd.

As long as the Wolverines keep the millions they earned from the Fab Five's two Final Four runs, merchandising sales and whatever other side benefits came along with having one of the most influential college basketball teams in history, then Webber doesn't owe the university anything.

Michigan took down the Fab Five's two Final Four banners, but for years, the school profited from the legacy the team left behind. Regardless of what the NCAA record book says, that can never be erased.

In the wake of the documentary, Webber again has become a convenient target for na´ve basketball purists who believe college athletes should be content with an education while coaches, athletic directors and university presidents can swim in the millions of dollars generated by their unpaid labor.

Sure, that's not a particularly new argument, but the longer college athletics ignores this festering problem, the longer we'll be stuck in this never-ending conversation.

As the Jim Tressel fiasco unerringly proved, the system allows college athletes to be cast as the villains. Meanwhile, their coaches and athletic directors often aren't punished as harshly.

Since the grown folks are the ones in charge, shouldn't they ultimately be held to a higher standard?

CBS' Jim Nantz said during the Ohio State-Michigan Big Ten tournament semifinal broadcast over the weekend that, "the Fab Five ruined the Michigan basketball program."

Really?

[+] EnlargeSteve Fisher
AP Photo/Ed ReinkeSteve Fisher recruited the Fab Five and was ultimately fired for the Ed Martin scandal.

I'm wondering if Nantz would have criticized Steve Fisher -- who coached the Fab Five, but now heads San Diego State's program -- as strongly as he did the Fab Five. From what I've seen, most of the media has characterized Fisher's re-emergence at San Diego State as a positive.

Of course, the Martin scandal impacted Michigan's program, but let's not pretend as if Michigan's athletic department didn't make some poor decisions that have stunted the program's revival.

We could start with the decision to hire Brian Ellerbe, who was an assistant under Fisher when the Martin scandal reached its tipping point. After winning the Big Ten tournament his first season, Ellerbe went 37-51 over the next three years.

Some of the alumni, fans and boosters who are still bitter about Webber are the same ones who were stuck in the mindset that the basketball program should play second fiddle to the football team.

After Ellerbe was fired, the Wolverines blew the chance to hire a dynamic coach and personality in Rick Pitino, settling instead on Tommy Amaker, who never made the NCAA tournament.

The point is that Michigan has had ample opportunity and seasons to recover from Webber's misdeeds, but the athletic department's hiring decisions have been big factors in why Michigan didn't recover from the Martin fallout as quickly as it could have.

By no means is Webber a victim, but neither is Michigan. Martin's widespread influence on the program was an institutional problem that existed before and after the Fab Five.

What happened at Michigan symbolized the corrupt college system.

An apology will never change that.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.

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