Nigel Hayes had an idea. It was 2016, and the senior forward for the University of Wisconsin basketball team wanted to send a message to the NCAA.
Like those who came before him—Ramogi Huma, who advocated for college athletes’ rights as a UCLA football player in the late 1990s, and Ed O’Bannon, who famously sued the NCAA for the commercial rights to his name, image and likeness—Hayes spent much of his time at Wisconsin pushing the NCAA to compensate athletes fairly for their play.
He’d mock the fact that players were doing Media Day interviews instead of being in class, or point out that he couldn’t afford a plane ticket home for Thanksgiving. When ESPN’s “College Gameday” did its show from Madison in October of 2016, Hayes sat in the stands with other students and help up a sign that read: “Broke College Athlete, Anything Helps.” It included a Venmo account name, “BrokeBadger1.”
Hayes even proposed to his Wisconsin basketball teammates that they boycott a nationally televised game early in the 2016-17 season. The idea came with one clear caveat, however: If even a single teammate rebuffed it, the boycott was off.
One player did, and the boycott was over before it started. That didn’t stop Hayes from being one of the most vocal critics of the NCAA system. Noting Wisconsin’s 10-year, nearly $100 million apparel deal with Under Armour in 2015, he remarked: “I’m sure that’s not enough to pay us for our playing, because that’s not enough money.”
Today, Hayes looks at the current wave of outspoken and organized college athletes and he believes what we’re seeing now will lead to an inevitable conclusion: the unionization of college sports. As it stands, college athletes are not considered employees and thus not eligible for collective bargaining, but the pandemic has brought into sharp relief long-simmering issues.
Across the collegiate sports universe there are numerous examples of how the protestations of Hayes and others led to some of what is happening now, which is the continuation of athletes pushing for more rights and say. Syracuse University football players are sitting out practices and demanding more COVID-19 testing.
In Washington, a group of Democratic Senators on Thursday proposed what they are calling a bill of rights for college athletes. Among parts of the proposal is a plan to compensate the players.
“I think that it’s a fantastic thing the athletes are doing,” said Hayes, who plays for the EuroLeague’s Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania. “They’re realizing the power they have, and when focused and concentrated, that power can create the change we’ve been pushing for when dealing with collegiate athletics.”
Since Hayes graduated three years ago, the landscape surrounding college sports has changed. Three states have passed laws that allow student-athletes to profit off their names, images and likenesses. Congress has entered the picture. The unprecedented events of 2020 have made many athletes less fearful of retribution from coaches, and far more attuned the concept of fairness.
Against this backdrop, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and other Power 5 conference players recently pushed to start a college players’ association.
Tim Nevius, an ex-college baseball player and former NCAA investigator, who as an attorney has represented college players in a federal antitrust lawsuit, said college athletes are flexing their collective voice and muscle in ways he’s never seen before.
“When you combine the Congressional attention that’s been focused on college athletics,” Nevius said, “and how players are speaking out, this is the most encouraging time for player rights in college that we’ve seen.”
There are, of course, significant hurdles—logistical, legal and philosophical—standing in the way, as outlined by Sportico‘s Michael McCann, who co-wrote O’Bannon’s 2018 memoir, Court Justice. Colleges and the NCAA will surely continue to balk at the idea of paying student-athletes for their play. So while the environment may be as favorable as it’s ever been, a future college athlete union is no sure thing. An attempt by Northwestern football players to unionize failed in 2015.
Hayes was asked why he thinks the overall pushback against paying players is so strong.
“One reason is greed,” he said in a text. “Why share money with the athletes who bring it in when you can keep it for yourself?”
Hayes also see race as a reason: “The most obvious reason…race definitely plays a factor. Surprise, surprise, race plays a huge role in virtually every facet of life. College athletics [aren’t] exempt. We all know blacks are the majority of athletes for the two moneymaking sports [men’s basketball and football]. We also understand that a lot of these athletes come from lower income backgrounds and communities. By paying these players, you’d be also helping those families in the black community….
“Which helps deal with the racial wealth gap, a problem we know America isn’t killing itself to fix,” he wrote. “So why would the NCAA help?”
Hayes also said players now should do what his Wisconsin team didn’t do four years ago.
“Boycotts, when done properly with attention, focus and dedication, ALWAYS WORK,” he wrote. “History has proven that. We live in a climate today when if someone on Twitter even jokingly types ‘Boycott Company 123XYZ’ the company immediately fixes, amends and corrects any wrongs or issues the public has with it. You saw the parade of ‘Black Support’ from businesses releasing statements for black lives and black initiatives….
“It became so commonplace because the companies knew if they didn’t, a boycott was coming,” he continued. “Just the thought of it changes everything. Apply the exact same strategy to the NCAA.”