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Webber/Wake deal sends wrong message

Americans are a forgiving people. We believe in fallen heroes who resurrect themselves. We believe in second chances. Of course, there is a practical and moral side to those second chances. For example, when a convicted bank robber gets out of prison, it’s not likely he’ll get a job as a bank guard.

I’m just saying. Likewise, someone who left college after two years because he was at the center of a major scandal and faced five federal indictments shouldn’t expect to get a job as a college professor. It just doesn’t pass the smell test.

But last week, Wake Forest University appeared to have lost its sense of smell and, along with it, its moral compass as well, by hiring scandal ridden Chris Webber to teach its students.

Webber, a five-time NBA All-Star, attended the University of Michigan for two years, during which time he received $280,000 in so-called loans from a booster named Ed Martin. Martin, as it turns out, was laundering money from an illegal gambling operation and, in addition to loaning Webber a fortune in ill-gotten gains, he allegedly also provided the basketball standout with spending money, jewelry, and clothing.

In 2002 following an exhaustive joint investigation by the NCAA, FBI, IRS, and Department of Justice, Webber was indicted on five counts, including obstruction of justice and lying to a federal grand jury (he had originally denied accepting the loan from Martin). He faced 25 years in prison and a one million dollar fine. Meanwhile the NCAA put Michigan’s basketball program on four year probation, vacated the University’s post season wins for multiple seasons, removed Webber’s name and achievements from the record books, and ordered Michigan to disassociate itself from Chris for 10 years. The University also had to return $450,000 to the NCAA for revenues earned during post-season play.

In July of 2003, just as jury selection had begun in Federal court, Ed Martin died suddenly, thereby weakening the Fed’s case against Webber. Chris escaped prison time by pleading guilty only to criminal intent. In basketball terms that’s known as getting away with an offensive foul. After leaving college in disgrace, Webber had a stellar career in the NBA, then became an analyst for Turner Sports. In May of 2013 Chris was allowed to once again associate with his alma mater.

One year before Webber’s exile was to end, he and filmmaker Peter Gilbert formed the Webber-Gilbert Media Group which the Raleigh News & Observer described as, “a multimedia production company that produces feature films and documentaries focusing on the intersection of sports, culture, and society.” Gilbert is also a professor at Wake Forest, and the man responsible for recruiting Webber to join the faculty. Together the business partners will teach a masters level course in “Sports Storytelling.”

In a statement issued by WFU, Webber said, “I’m excited to bring real life experience to the program … telling stories about sports is my new career … I understand how sports, business, race, gender, and economics mesh.” Added Gilbert, “Students will graduate with the expertise to tell the stories behind the stories.” The problem is that Webber’s story should preclude him from teaching those students in the first place.

To begin with, Webber not only doesn’t have a college degree, he didn’t even finish college. So how is he able to teach a Masters of Sports Storytelling course? He like Gilbert is considered a “Professor in Practice”, a designation which allows someone lacking in academic credentials to teach because of the experience he has gained in his chosen profession. Actually the adjunct position is widely used by colleges who want to give their students a real world perspective in their major. I myself once presided over a student-run TV show at UNCG, and, more recently my friend Sandra Hughes was hired to oversee a similar project at NC A&T. But Sandra and I have a direct connection to our respective alma maters, we weren’t recruited by our for-profit business partner, and neither of us committed crimes at our respective universities.

In my way of thinking, Webber is a poor role model for students of any age. It’s one thing for him to be invited to speak before a class of law school students who might be interested in his brush with the criminal justice system, but that’s a far cry from hiring him to teach full time. What was Wake Forest thinking? How in God’s green earth is it OK to hire a man to teach college who was involved in one of the biggest scandals in the history of college athletics? How is it Ok for a university to pay money to a man who cost his own alma mater millions of dollars? What message will it send to Wake students that their “professor” broke the rules, and broke the law when he was in college, and has profited ever since. By placing Webber in a position of influence over students, Wake has, in a sense, hired the proverbial bank robber to guard the bank.

I’m sure Chris Webber is a nice guy and he’s well liked, so there are plenty of ways he can contribute to society, but please just not as a college professor. Then again, perhaps he’s exactly where he should be. After all Webber was once convicted for storytelling, and now he’s being paid for it. Aren’t second chances great? !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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