Nigel Hayes posing with a “broke college athlete” sign on national television last month was his way of speaking his mind about paying student-athletes.
The lightning bolt of a social media missive Tuesday from the Badgers basketball star — “As a student, I demand change from @UWMadison,” he tweeted, along with a statement about Wisconsin’s black students suffering racial injustices on campus — was his way of starting a conversation about race.
Hayes, the Big Ten preseason player of the year pick, also has strong views about police violence. So do his teammates. And on more topics, too, which is why Hayes and his teammates will sit down to discuss protests.
“There’s nothing definitive,” Hayes said this fall. “There may be something, or there may not be.”
If Hayes and the Badgers decide to demonstrate, during the national anthem or otherwise, they almost certainly will not be alone.
The college hoops season begins Friday, with more than 160 games across the country. With that basketball blitz likely will come a fresh round of athletes choosing to protest from the playing stage.
After San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem this August in protest of police violence, several pro and college athletes followed his lead. College basketball has had time to prepare for demonstrations as they watched them play out on football fields across the country.
Gophers coach Richard Pitino doesn’t know whether his players will make a statement when their season begins Friday, but he has told his players he hopes they would do it together if so.
“We’ve talked a lot about it,” the fourth-year coach said. “I want them to feel comfortable to speak up. Because nobody knows what anybody is really going through. … My biggest thing to them is, ‘Guys, whatever it is you want to talk about, let’s be as educated as possible.’ We’ve shown them a lot of things and talked about things … it’s been great. It’s been all healthy conversation.”
When Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer in Falcon Heights in July, several U athletes reposted the viral video Castile’s girlfriend took of the incident.
“As an African American student athlete, we aren’t able to express our opinion on certain topics, it’s crazy how scary it is to be [black] in today’s [world],” junior guard Nate Mason tweeted the day after the July 7 shooting.
Since then, the Gophers have discussed police violence and other issues, making Mason more comfortable about sharing his opinions.
“What I stress, and what we stress to each other, is: If we are going to do something, [make sure] it’s well thought-out,” he said. “Make sure we plan. Make sure we know the solutions before we bring it up to the press. Let’s not just do it for the media publicity. Let’s make sure we do it together.”
Pitino spoke with Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle about making sure his team is educated on different issues, and Pitino plans to bring in police officers to meet with his team.
Coyle was supportive, giving the teams and athletes the right to speak out, Pitino said. Coyle wrote in a statement to the Star Tribune: “Our university, including our entire athletics department, supports any student-athlete who feels compelled to speak out about any issue.”
Earlier this month, Pitino banned players from using Twitter during the season, as he did during the 2014-15 season, and the coach even deleted his own account. But Pitino said the policy exists because he doesn’t want players reading “too much negativity out there. It’s not that I don’t want them to have a voice. By all means, they should have a voice.”
Pitino’s peers in coaching have used other outreach tactics. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said he talked with former players, including the outspoken Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors.
“I went to my players and asked them, ‘How do you guys feel?’ ” Izzo said. “The only thing I ask them is: Let’s talk when you have an issue. If you feel like you have to do something, just talk to me about it. Not to talk you out of it, but so that I can give you the best advice on how to handle the aftermath or whatever. And so I can handle it.
“I hope we can all come to something that the social inequities is not part of who we should be, whatever we are. If there’s anything going on [against] any race, creed, color or sexual orientation … I’m not for it. So I’d support my players full-go. I just want to make sure they understand it.”
Hayes’ Badgers met this summer with police officers, who tried to help players understand how to avoid potentially dangerous situations in encounters with law enforcement.
“All they said is do your best to comply,” Hayes said. “But we’ve seen countless videos of people complying and still dying. So there’s really nothing to tell you. It’s just: I hope you don’t get the racist cop that wants to shoot you. … There is nothing I can tell you, ‘Do this and you won’t die.’ There’s really no surefire answer to it.”
If Hayes lives up to on-court expectations, college basketball will have a season in which a premier player makes headlines for more than his play. His Twitter splash Tuesday — which was heard by Badgers AD Barry Alvarez, who released a “look forward to meeting” statement before the day was done — likely won’t be his last.
If nothing else, players and coaches and athletic department bosses appear more comfortable talking about these issues together.
“I just asked them to examine their conscience about what you believe in,” Nebraska basketball coach Tim Miles said of his players. “I think if you want to even take it farther, it’s: what are you going to do in the future to help neighborhoods, to help families, to help your own families and be ready to pay this forward. Because everybody is asking for the same thing, which is a better America. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”