The NCAA should fear Nigel Hayes' activism

If the Wisconsin player's protest goes mainstream, amateurism could be doomed

The NCAA should be afraid of Nigel Hayes.

Very, very afraid.

The Wisconsin forward, recently voted the Big-Ten Preseason Player of the Year, stole the headlines on what was supposed to be a day focused on the Badgers’ football team when he showed up to ESPN’s College Gameday with a sign that read: “Broke college athlete, anything helps”.

On the bottom of the sign was the Venmo handle “brokebadger1” that Wisconsin fans, students, or Mark Emmert could send money to.

Candidly, no one knows the state of Hayes’ finances. But what we do know is this: He is prohibited from profiting off his athletic skills while in college and likely commits so much time to his sport (upwards of 40 hours per week) that he doesn’t have time for the side jobs that most college students work. So while he may or may not be broke, he is definitely a second-class economic citizen in the eyes of the NCAA.

Hayes almost broke Twitter with his activism, with thousands responding to his indictment of the collegiate athletic system. A lot of ostensibly pro-capitalist, pro-free market tweeters espoused some very non-capitalist, non-free market positions, essentially telling Hayes sit down, shut up and be thankful for the collusively capped compensation (athletic scholarship) he already receives.

A writer with the Sporting News even questioned if Hayes, given his decision to return to Wisconsin for his senior season, was the “right” player to be protesting against the NCAA — as if Hayes foregoing an initial chance to turn professional in any way makes amateurism any less anachronistic or self-serving.

Hayes is likely used to the backlash by now, as this is not the first time he has spoken out against the injustice of NCAA’s amateurism model. Just last week, he highlighted the hypocrisy of the term “student-athlete” at the Big-Ten media days last week, and earlier this year called out Wisconsin for its 10-year, $96 million apparel deal with Under Armour. He is also the lead plaintiff on a pending antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA seeking to prohibit its member institutions from capping the value of an athletic scholarship at a student’s cost of attending the school (tuition, fees, room and board, required course books, travel expenses, etc.).

Though the recently adjudicated O’Bannon case will prevent Hayes’ lawsuit from allowing schools to give players “cash sums untethered to educational expenses,” it still permits Hayes’ lawyers to seek other increased benefits for college athletes, including more comprehensive post-career medical care, scholarships for graduate school, and allowing schools to pay for parents’ expenses on recruiting visits and postseason trips. Not the “game changing” suit many experts figured it might be, but with the collegiate athletic power brokers still holding tightly to the philosophy that no player should receive any form of compensation exceeding the value of a scholarship, even piecemeal changes are significant.

Hayes’ lawsuit, however, is not the reason the NCAA should fear the Wisconsin star — though a victory for Hayes and his fellow plaintiffs could have ripple affects across all of college sports. No, what the NCAA and its member schools should be most afraid of is the self-awareness and courageous activism that have spurred Hayes’ involvement in the current reform movement.

Hayes is different from the vast majority of other college athletes, in that knows he’s being exploited — and isn’t afraid to tell the world. He knows that the conference he plays in generated nearly $450 million in revenue in 2014-15, distributing over $30 million to member schools that still claim they have no money to directly compensate their players. He knows that the term “student-athlete” is a self-serving, legal liability-shielding sham. He knows that his school chose profits over player comfort when it signed an apparel and gear deal with Under Armour. He knows that his coaches and administrators enjoy the workings of the free market, while he and his fellow players languish in economic purgatory.

Most importantly, he knows that a majority of the American population either doesn’t know or doesn't care about the economic injustices facing college athletes and that the most effective ways to spur social progress is to educate, provoke and discuss.

And not only is Hayes aware of his and his peers’ plights, he is willing to openly and articulately challenge the status quo. This is where many athletes stop, and understandably so. The power dynamics of college athletics are so unequal, so completely one-sided that players are either afraid to speak on their own behalf or believe their efforts will be futile. The only other current athlete on Hayes’ level is UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, who has also been outspoken in his criticism of the NCAA and derision of its amateur model.

ASU has a particularly potent example of athlete activism, although it occurred after the player left Tempe. Remember Sam Keller? Yes, that Sam Keller, the one who once backed-up Andrew Walter and threw for 1,582 yards in his first four games in 2005.

After his playing career ended, Keller filed a class-action lawsuit against EA Sports and the NCAA alleging both illegally used his and thousands of other players’ likenesses in creating the NCAA Football and NCAA Basketball video games. While Keller ultimately settled with EA and the NCAA for $40 and $20 million dollars, respectively, the case was a seminal moment in the fight for college athletes’ rights, as the NCAA was finally made to pay for its use of players’ names, images and likenesses.

Hayes and Rosen are the threats the NCAA should be most concerned about, not its ongoing legal battles (though that litigation could bring about positive, impactful change). As more and more athletes begin to understand, as Hayes and Rosen have, that their relationships with their schools resemble indentured servitude and the quickest, most powerful agent of change may be their own voices and bodies, the current amateur model may not last much longer.

Indeed, if and when players stage a walkout during the College Football Playoff, collectively refuse to play during the Final Four, or even engage in smaller forms of disobedience like covering the manufacturers logo on their shoes and jerseys, the NCAA and its members will have no choice but to meet players at the bargaining table and reckon with the consequences of their exploitative practices. Once the money and power they’ve unjustly accumulated over the decades is threatened by those who are actually generating the revenue, amateurism may well fall asunder and be replaced by a fairer, more equitable college athletics paradigm.

Only then will real, lasting, positive change occur in college sports.

Until that moment, the NCAA should fear the day when it faces the outcry of not one Nigel Hayes or Josh Rosen, but thousands of athletes clamoring for the rights they deserve.


Reach the columnist at cameron.miller.1@asu.edu or follow @camerun_miller on Twitter.

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