Chris Webber’s impact on basketball culture can’t be denied. He was the star player of the revolutionary Fab Five Michigan Wolverines that became the first team to compete in the NCAA championship game with all freshmen starters. With their trendy baggy shorts, black socks and black shoes, they helped change the way fashion was viewed across the college basketball landscape.
Now, the former five-time NBA All-Star and current TNT analyst will be teaching a new course at the legendary Morehouse College called Activism in Sports and Culture, which will be hosted on the online education provider Coursera. Webber, who played 15 seasons in the NBA with five teams, looks to inspire the next generation of activist athletes and give context about those who preceded them.
“What I aim to do hopefully is to honor guys like John Carlos and Spencer Haywood, to let guys know there would be no Kobe Bryant, LeBron [James] if Spencer Haywood didn’t go to the Supreme Court,” Webber told The Undefeated. “I want to honor them, to make sure they stay relevant, to spark conversation, to inspire someone to take those messages and see that, ‘Listen, I can get over that. If they’ve gone through this, I can get through it.’ ”
Webber explained how he believes his life experiences have encouraged him to teach this course. Growing up, he remembers events such as the 1989 murder of Yusef Hawkins by a white mob in Brooklyn, New York, while he was in high school. Webber also has a clear memory of what it was like living with his mother, who was a strict educator herself.
“My mom is a teacher and she was the type of woman that was very thorough and would erase my papers, so I always ran from being a teacher,” joked Webber. “But I always had an innate love for history and context.”
That love of history has led Webber into forming friendships and relationships with some of the most notable athletes in history. People such as Carlos and Haywood have served as mentors and helped guide him on his journey.
“I would speak with a lot of my mentors who have been activists,” said Webber, describing how the course came to be. “And that just led to a relationship. We were able to drop a curriculum and work with people I was familiar with, and I thought I could definitely bring their message to the people.”
The course will also look at the evolution of athletes’ protests over time, and give context to the different circumstances that surrounded them. Webber believes that the rise of social media has been a great addition to the movement and wishes that the athletes of his generation could have the same tools to get their own messages across.
“When I grew up there were only three to five TV channels, and because of institutional racism you didn’t have a shot of getting your narrative out,” said Webber. “I love how LeBron has empowered himself with technology and said, ‘I have this many followers, I don’t need this station. I can get this message out.’ ”
Webber is also an advocate for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Morehouse. He took classes at HBCUs during and after his playing career and he has family ties to HBCUs through his wife and father-in-law, who attended Morgan State University. He also remembers a visit to one HBCU campus in particular.
“My best friend went to FAMU [Florida A&M University] and I still remember going with him on his visit and I remember going to the moon,” said Webber. “I remember telling him, ‘I want to come here.’ It’s wonderful to be in a world where you’re respected and you learn there are so many pluses. I’m going to encourage my children to do that.”
Certain events, such as legendary athlete Deion Sanders coaching at an HBCU, have the potential to attract attention and help HBCUs build and recruit athletes. Having some experience with the culture, Webber understands that if these schools can get to the point where athletes are not hindered by going to HBCUs, they have a chance to make a real impact.
“Imagine if all the best athletes from all of these communities went to HBCUs, we already know what would happen,” Webber told The Undefeated. “But it’s going to take some perception changing and hiring greats like Deion and it will happen very quickly.”
While Webber knows what the possibilities are, he also notes that there are important steps that HBCUs will need to take for this vision to become a reality. It’s not just about hiring coaches, but also facilities and resources. The competitive advantage that Power 5 schools have is not something that Webber takes lightly, and he has made it clear that he would like some of these issues to be addressed.
“Universities owe it to the athletes to put all they can into the athletic programs if you asked him to come,” said Webber. “You have to set the table for these individuals to come – we know they have the best talent.”
While HBCUs have had some trouble recruiting top athletes, their academic prowess can’t be denied. This is why Coursera, which has been providing online classes for schools across the country since 2012, began its partnership with Morehouse – making it the first HBCU to have a class on the platform, with Howard University expected to begin classes soon. Coursera is also focused on creating more content in social justice and awareness, which can explain why Webber’s class was the first to launch.
This also makes it a natural fit with Morehouse, as the school focuses on making more online courses available to the public as part of its Morehouse Without Borders initiative, which it launched in 2019. Morehouse provost Kendrick Brown said that the new partnership with Coursera is not only going to be centered on this one course, but hopes it is going to be an extension of the college.
“As we think about this particular course and the other offerings that we want to do with Coursera, we want to make sure they’re consistent with the strengths that we have that’s been developed over the last 154 years,” Brown told The Undefeated.
Webber’s viral speech when the Milwaukee Bucks decided to protest without playing a playoff game following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year served as a perfect reminder of how sports can be a powerful platform for athletes. It provides a space where Black people have an unavoidable stage, and recently we have seen a new wave of athletes use this to their advantage, especially in the NBA and WNBA.
Even Morehouse, a Division II school that is renowned for its academics and not necessarily its athletic programs, knows how much sports play a vital role in educating and getting messages of change out into the mainstream.
“I think that [sports] are really powerful as a medium for understanding what it is that Morehouse has been about, which is leadership development, social justice and really being able to better understand the experiences that Black men and other people have,” said Brown.