I understand why everyone gets so emotional when the discussion of Chris Webber comes up. He was the central figure in an investigation that set our basketball program back more than a decade. He lied to the authorities and has refused to apologize to Michigan fans. Our feelings are hurt and the banners are down.
But I'd like to kindly ask you to forget about the RESULT of his actions for a moment. Rather, I would like you to consider his motivation at the time of his actions.
Chris Webber was a kid with a skill.
He played basketball really well.
There are 14 and 15-year-old tennis players getting paid millions of dollars in endorsements for similar skills. There are teenagers who sign lucrative deals out of high school as top draft picks in the MLB. To a lesser extent, there are teenage kids making big cash as young hockey prospects. Shaun White, the olympic snowboarder, was making millions in endorsements by age 13, when he went pro.
Why do we not vilify these kids for aspiring to cash in on their athletic success at such a young age? Why do we read about these kids in KidzWorld and Forbes magazine? Shouldn't we discuss their behavior with wagging fingers in the editorial section of the New York Times?
The answer is simple. Those kids play sports that have systematic ways of providing monetary reward for aspiring talent. The MLB and NHL have spent millions investing in legitimate farm systems that develop talent and pay players modest sums. Tennis and snowboarding allow players to go pro whenever they like, freeing athletes to be sponsored by major corporations.
The NBA, on the other hand, continues to use the NCAA as a free minor league, sorting the best talent from the worst at the expense of universities--and the aspiring athletes.
Chris Webber elected to get paid under the table because the NBA didn't provide (and still doesn't provide) a viable minor league that pays well and invests in star athlete's futures.
Sure, Webber could have used better judgement. He could've been more honest with federal investigators. And he sure could apologize to UM fans for letting them down.
But I hope we can acknowledge his wrong doings within the context of his circumstances. While other teen athletes were cashing in on their success to the tune of millions, we wanted Webber to simply smile and be thankful for a college scholarship. It was, and is, an unfair expectation, and we have the NBA to thank for it.
To those outraged by Webber's behavior--who don't want to see him back in Crisler under any circumstances-- I hope you hold similar contempt for Sidney Crosby, Maria Sharapova, and Michelle Wie. They were just a bunch of silly, greedy kids, who couldn't wait to cash in on their athletic success.
EDIT/ADDENDUM: To clear things up, I do not wish to absolve C-Webb for all wrongdoings. I think he should apologize and acknowledge that he was a stupid kid who got caught up in something bigger than he could've fathomed as a kid.
I bring up the "NBA has no viable minor leauge" thing because I think it makes his actions more understandable given the context. Teenage MLB draftees don't face the decision C-Webb faced. They sign with agents and develop while they get paid.
Lastly-- to those who say he could've gone pro out of high school-- there was NO precedent for this. NONE. Shawn Kemp went to UK and was kicked out for stealing. He went pro because he had no other options (and faced the consequences of entering that world too soon). Moses Malone was drafted in 1974 by the ABA. Not an option for C-Webb. Darryl Dawkins was the poster child for why going pro out of high school is a BAD idea. C-Webb did what everyone did before Kevin Garnett (who went pro ONLY because he failed to get a 17 on the ACT).