Wisconsin Badgers

Nigel Hayes: Making college basketball uncomfortably ideal

Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes, left, douses Bronson Koenig after they won a second-round men's college basketball game against Xavier in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 20, 2016, in St. Louis. Wisconsin won the game 66-63. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

What happens when a person without any power attempts to show any? He gets shouted down, mightily, by those who aren’t in a similar situation. The latest example is Wisconsin Badgers forward Nigel Hayes.

For those unaware, Hayes has quickly become an activist of sorts. He’s gone on record to discuss race and national relations, and has recently made his opinions known on amateurism. It is all needed from someone who is active in the NCAA’s use of power.

H/T Darren Rovell’s Twitter

Hayes’ attempt at bringing to light some issues that come with being a student-athlete was met with a strange backlash on Saturday. After he made a civil — and not actually new or different — statement, many of college basketball’s ambassadors took to the mean streets of Twitter to discuss Hayes’ statement in very black and white terms.

“He could have gone pro,” they said.

“If he doesn’t like college, he should have went pro,” some declared.

It’s the amateur idealists’ version of the politically motivated slogan, “If you don’t like America, then leave.”

This has been a longstanding problem with the pay-to-play discussion. Many of the people in charge of discussing or advancing the sport — media members, coaches (former or current), etc. — have things at stake. For some, their jobs may actually be on the line if things don’t go the way they think it should — or, at least that is what they believe.

It is why, partially, we have been stuck in this same conversation for years. People who are otherwise smart, entrusted with giant platforms, use those luxuries afforded to them to shout down someone like Hayes, who was merely using his own, much smaller platform to voice his own concerns.

One doesn’t have to agree with the Wisconsin player. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion — though, and this works both ways, it is worth noting that an “opinion” is the lowest form of thought. Unless backed up by actual data, which we tend not to do when discussing pay-for-play, we’re all just screaming random nonsense for the sake of ideals or personal beliefs.

Still, to shoot down his message because he stayed in school is an odd one. After all, had he waited to do this until after he went pro, we’d instead face the outcries of “If he wanted to create change, he’d do so while in college.”

In a less polite way: People who believe in the idea of amateurism aren’t mad how Hayes expressed his message, or anything like that, but are just mad he had a message to send — but only because it isn’t their message.


It is a tired trope when it comes to anything of social or political consequence. Each side takes an incredibly firm stand, yells at each other, all while refusing any nuance, education, or actual discussion in a conversation that needs to be had.

This is why progress has become such a difficult voyage in today’s supposedly cultured Western Civilization. You’re right, I’m right, he’s right, she’s right… and none of us are ever wrong.

What makes this specific attempt at a discussion great — and which is unfortunate for those who oppose any of Hayes’ multiple viewpoints on important topics — is that he is a very good player on what should be a very strong Wisconsin team this season. He and — more importantly — his messages aren’t going anywhere. These uncomfortable conversations he is more than willing to have will be shoved down our throats whether we like it or not.

Oh, and Nigel Hayes is smart.

This isn’t some random person looking for attention or a guy with an ax to grind. Hayes is educated on this topic. Coupled with other people’s own inabilities to view this conversation through another’s point of view, Hayes is in a position to effect change.

We should be applauding this young man even if many of us might disagree with his perspectives and beliefs. Why? Because he’s taking a stand in a rather difficult place to do so.

It’s easy for you or I, the people not immersed in the given situations we regularly debate about, to take our idealistic stands. For the people whose lives are being altered by a specific situation, especially those very literally living it on a day-to-day basis, it takes courage to speak one’s mind while people who aren’t stakeholders are all telling them how awful they are for not living up to another person’s set of beliefs.

“Help me, help you, help yourself… but only if it benefits me.”

It is the never-ending cycle of any issue that needs more careful handling than we currently give it.

“Yeah, I’ll hear you out… until you say something I disagree with. Then I’ll just yell so loud that I’m incapable of being open to being wrong.”

I swear it, being wrong is okay. No one is that smart, or wise, or without bias that s/he can speak without telling inaccuracies from time to time. Being more open to another side of a person’s story, specifically one WE HAVE NEVER LIVED OURSELVES, seems like a pretty smart thing to do.

But it's not a job for players while it is big business for everyone else? Umm....

But it’s not a job for players while it is big business for everyone else? Umm….

This is the landscape of college sports:

Where many student-athletes are regularly told to be grateful to get a “free” education that they are applying a service to receive (which doesn’t make it free); are met with great backlash whenever they have any opinions; are expected to be subservient to the people already in power, and are doing everything they can to keep them from obtaining any; and are held to this incredibly high, and mostly unrealistic, standard for behavior that we don’t even apply to those who make money off the back of the free labor.

That is an entire other can of worms — our romanticized legends of college basketball, the sport’s stars, its coaches, are a media-created work of fiction many are still coming to terms with as more and more of our beloved “leaders of young men” turn out to be as flawed as, you know, normal people.

What a shocker: Just because a guy is good at coaching doesn’t mean he is incapable of doing bad things. It’s as though we don’t have example after example of people put on a pedestal for relatively unimportant things who turn out to be ethical and moral monsters.


By taking his latest stand, coupled with the ones he has already made and whatever others he will make in the future, Nigel Hayes has put a target on his back — maybe not from opposing teams, which are just trying to stop him on the hardwood, but from media critics and fans who either want to use sports as a real-life escape or think these kids should be grateful for what they are currently given.

Or — and this might be the most honest reason of all — the critics are just afraid their favorite sport(s) might be ruined by change while not realizing change does not necessarily mean something bad.

This is inherently unfortunate. Hayes is merely trying to illuminate a conversation we have had — off and on — for well over a decade at this point. Unlike other variations of it, however, we now have an active member of this archaic system speaking out against it.

Sadly, we all already know where this is going. This attempt at sparking a conversation has already turned into people drawing permanent lines in what should be fluid sand.

People will instead attempt to infer many things about college athletes: that they are not the attractions for each program in each money-making sport; that not all are valuable; and it might hurt some of the smaller programs if the NCAA gave in to a pay-to-play system.

But those talking points are always formatted in doomsday scenario situations while ignoring a few obvious caveats that should be attached to them: Namely, not all Division I programs should be trying to compete at the highest level. It is not some poorly-funded university’s right to operate like a big business when it can’t.

Who can forever forget the age-old and forever worthless point that, yes, Duke is the draw and not necessarily the player.

That doesn’t mean those players good enough to wear the Duke name and lead Duke to a national title are worthless.

It is akin to saying you like Dunkin Donuts, but don’t care about its employees… so, in turn, those employees shouldn’t be paid, even though they are necessary to the process of giving you hot coffee and a delicious jelly-filled donut to start your day.


Another portion of this will have people come out as the “The solutions are hard, so let’s ignore the problems” folk.

Instead of discussing the actual issue — that maybe college players should get more — they will instead talk about how difficult it would be to come up with a system that doesn’t kill the money-sports — as if we’re very literally not operating under an umbrella where THOUSANDS of people in academia are at their disposal to help fix that issue.

Regardless, all of our own opinions to the wayside, the only thing we know for near certainty is that the 2016-’17 college basketball season is going to be about a lot more than just wins and losses. This conversation, and others like it, aren’t going anywhere whether we like it or not.

Thank you, Nigel Hayes, for adding a face to a cause, and for not allowing it to be yet another offseason one-off topic for media members and fans to gloss over as tired yearly traditions.

This time, hopefully, it will be different.

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