ESPN, Jalen Rose, And The Manufactured "Uncle Tom" Controversy

Big ratings last weekend for ESPN's Fab Five film: Bill Simmons says it was the highest rated ESPN doc ever.

The program did such a nuts number in large part because of its hype. Jalen Rose, one of the documentary's executive producers, called Duke's black players "Uncle Toms" in the movie. Well, sort of. All week long, it was all anyone could talk about, especially on ESPN, and it wasn't long before we were presented with the spectacle of an ESPN on-air personality, one who's producing a movie for ESPN, appearing on ESPN programs to talk about his comments made in this ESPN movie, comments that aired in advance on an ESPN program. ESPN wins, and Jalen Rose wins, too, and in a way it's the perfect coda for the Fab Five's story.

First, let's look at what Rose said, in context:

For me, Duke was personal. I hated Duke. And I hated everything I felt Duke stood for. Schools like Duke didn't recruit players like me. I felt like they only recruited black players that were Uncle Toms.

He wasn't saying that this is how he currently feels about Duke, nor was he necessarily endorsing the sentiment. He was merely saying that this is how he felt as a teenage basketball star. He was admitting to harboring some impolitic thoughts two decades ago. There's nothing particularly controversial about that, and it's worth wondering if the media would've zeroed in on the comment if ESPN hadn't waved them in with day-glo wands and bright orange cones.

Here's a timeline:

Tuesday, March 8: Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson appear on First Take to respond to that quote, excepted from the movie. From what I can tell, this is the first mention of Rose's remark. Again: ESPN brings on Rose to respond to comments that only ESPN has access to. Rose, King, and Jackson also appear on Mike and Mike in the Morning and discuss the quote. ESPN's Facebook page offers a preview that night, which includes the quote. Rose takes part in a live chat afterward.

Wednesday, March 9: Rose appears on Simmons's podcast to talk about the movie, Duke, hip hop and his NBA career.

Friday, March 11: Rose, King, and Jackson have a lengthy chat with Page 2 and talk about Duke in general, but not about the quote.

Saturday, March 12: J.A. Adande's big Fab Five feature appears on ESPN.com.

Sunday, March 13: Documentary runs on ESPN. Big ratings.

Tuesday, March 15: Rose appears on First and Ten, clarifying his remarks to Skip Bayless (see below), with whom he has the following exchange:

Rose: "As a 17-year old recruit, that's exactly how I felt. [...] Now, I understand what their program represents, because I'm a mature adult. I know it's a private school, that they do recruit players from well-to-do, affluent families. But also, I understand some of the reason why—so that they don't see some of the players selling goods for money. Also, they want to have kids who represent the program the right way. I get all of that. But that's the minority. I was speaking for the majority. And that's how I felt then."

Bayless: "So you don't feel that way today?"

Rose: "Well, the bottom line is this: they do recruit a certain kind of player. They recruit a lot of players from private schools."

Rose's explanation-apology doesn't apologize for or explain much. Rather, its vagueness only creates more discussion.

Wednesday, March 16: Grant Hill responds to Rose with an op-ed online for The New York Times.

In addition, we learn from the unedited version that both Hill and Jay Williams received Twitter apologies from Rose before the documentary aired. On Twitter, Jimmy King notes that he has 99 problems but a Grant ain't one.

Thursday, March 17: First and Ten discusses Hill's response to Rose's remarks. ESPN rallies a bunch of its online columnists for some kind of roundtable. Hill's op-ed runs in the print Times. Michael Wilbon writes something.

March 21-March 25: Documentary will re-air at least once each day on the ESPN family of networks.

This is where ESPN's tricky dual roles as journalism outfit and producer of sports entertainment collide, and the results aren't always pretty. ESPN, not to mention Jalen Rose, only stood to benefit from a controversy over Rose's remarks. Among other things, it allowed the network to promote the doc without explicitly promoting it. It was news now, not just another piece of entertainment programming.

And I can't think of a better way for the Fab Five's story to come to a close. Consider what Rose told Simmons on the podcast. They were talking about Mitch Albom's book.

We boycotted the book as it was happening, because we already felt like we were being taken advantage of by the system, whether it was University of Michigan, Nike, a lot of different people that were able to capitalize financially on the Fab Five. We knew that the book had legs, that it would possibly be a best-seller, and we didn't get a dime. I don't take it personal, it's just the system.

And now Jalen Rose is finally making a dime, many many dimes, in fact, on the back of a controversy he helped create. He is a part of the system now.

Grant Hill's Unedited Response to the Fab Five's Documentary [GrantHill.com]
Whitlock: Fab Five film more fantasy than documentary [Fox Sports]
Jalen Rose on First and Ten [YouTube]