Wisconsin Badgers

Man of many words: Nigel Hayes has much to live up to

March 10, 2016: Wisconsin Badgers forward Nigel Hayes (10) during the men's Big Ten Tournament basketball game between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Wisconsin Badgers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN.  (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)
Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

Social activism is everywhere these days. Those who cover sports are no longer just talking Xs and Os and made-up statistics; coverage now involves writing and being knowledgeable about social issues, both big and small, because of how involved professional athletes have become in recent months.

That has trickled down to the collegiate level, and at the forefront is the Wisconsin basketball team.

Bronson Koenig has already engaged in some activism, traveling to an oil pipeline in North Dakota to protest with fellow Native Americans. Nigel Hayes, as outspoken as he has been over the last two years, including being part of a lawsuit against the NCAA for free market opportunities for college athletes, has been expected to take part in protests as well.

During Big Ten Media Day, Badgers head coach Greg Gard was asked of Koenig and Hayes’ current and potential protests in light of all the news Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players have made for protesting the national anthem.

Here’s the transcript to Gard’s entire press conference comments. His remarks on the protests appear on the bottom of page two.

It’s a long quote, so I’ll summarize. Essentially, Gard said that he has spoken with both individuals as well as the team on a few occasions about their potential involvements. He talked to them about protesting, but also asked that they know why they’re protesting and what they’re going to do to back it up — words are not enough.

By all accounts, Hayes is an intelligent college student, one who knows what he’s saying and has a reason for saying it. So Hayes took to Twitter, and ESPN’s College GameDay, to make another statement.

Saturday, he showed up to College GameDay‘s appearance in Madison for the Ohio State-Wisconsin football game with a “Broke Badger” sign, and told ESPN that rather than complaining — which is what many feel he’s doing — he’s trying to re-open the dialogue about compensating college players.

This isn’t the first time Hayes has done this, and hopefully it won’t be the last, but — as per usual — some are taking his words and their intent differently. Consider this article from Michael DeCourcy of The Sporting News. DeCourcy has been one of the loudest voices against giving college players more for what they provide to viewers and, let’s face it, media members.

Take, for example, the weekly rankings provided for college athletics, namely football and basketball. What’s their purpose? Really, there isn’t one. It doesn’t do anything for the programs to see their teams ranked in the top 25 except draw interest from the viewers. And that interest helps whom? The television networks broadcasting the games and the media members that cover them.

If you can say you have the top two teams going head-to-head on the court, that will generate higher viewing numbers. A piece about a top-five team and its climb to that position will be more widely read.

What Hayes has done over the past week is put even more eyes on him, which is a slight problem — not because he’s taking away from anyone or anything. To my knowledge he’s not going out of his way to make this about him. No, the problem is that Hayes now has the attention of the nation. He may be better off not having that much attention because of all that’s expected of him on the court this season.

For the second straight year, Hayes is expected to carry the Badgers, a team predicted to challenge for a national championship next March. He was chosen as the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, elevating the high expectations he had last season. Though he produced a solid campaign, he did not live up to being the high-level player he could’ve been. His 3-for-39 shooting performance in the NCAA Tournament didn’t help much.

Instead of just having to reach the plateau outsiders demand from him on the court, there’s now the added pressure to continue his activism, voice his opinions, and be a face of the pay-for-play movement. Being the face of Wisconsin is pressure enough, but now there’s so much more to Hayes’ 2016-17 campaign.

Good for Hayes for continuing to take up the cause he believes in (he didn’t start this past week), but there’s a lot riding on this young man’s shoulders this season. The weight he carries is now a little bigger than just college basketball games.

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