Don't Just Shut Up and Play

Wisconsin Badgers basketball player Nigel Hayes calls on athletes to speak out and calls out the NCAA for skirting responsibilities to protect players.

Nigel Hayes - Wisconsin Badgers
May 10, 2017

Don't Just Shut Up and Play

Nigel Hayes

Wisconsin Badgers

May 10 2017

You’ll have to forgive me — I don’t know all the rules when it comes to writing a commencement address. I’ve been told that it’s standard procedure to start out with a famous quote. Or a cliché about what college really means. Or maybe an allegory that involves an animal.

Small problem: This isn’t an official commencement speech. (Lucky for all involved, to be honest.) And anyway, I’ve never really liked standard procedures.

So instead I’m gonna go a little bit rogue. I want to talk about Twitter.

Ah yes, Twitter. The magical land where opinions are made of gold and facts are made of cotton candy. Stay with me here, I’m trying to write a rogue commencement address and I’ve never done anything like this before.

Actually, what I really want to talk about is being a student-athlete (or “athletic student,” as I like to say — because it’s no secret that I came here primarily to play basketball). Twitter just plays a role in the story.

Four years ago, before I got to college, a lot of my friends and family back in Toledo asked me why I had decided to go to Wisconsin, which at the time hadn’t been to a Final Four since 2000. After all, I’m an Ohio kid — why not go somewhere closer to home?

And I remember exactly what I said to them: “I’ll let you know when I’m done there.”

This week, as I’m set to graduate, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about what Wisconsin has meant to me. Going to school here has truly been a life-changing experience. I could go on forever about how proud I am to have been a part of two Final Four teams, a Big Ten title and a 115–35 record. The teammates and coaches I’ve had the honor to learn from have made me a better player and a better human being. I’ll always be proud to say I wore the the cardinal and white.

But as I count down the days to my graduation, and then to the NBA draft, I want to focus on what my four years here have meant to me off the court. Not just as an athlete, but as a student and an athlete. A student-athlete.

Student-athlete — I know you’re familiar with the term. (Though you might not be familiar with its legal distinction, which lets the NCAA off the hook for normal labor protections.)

It’s funny how many people are still surprised to learn that — yes, it’s true — there are still four-year college basketball players who plan to graduate and then turn pro. We’re not the endangered species that we’ve been made out to be.

But we are sometimes misunderstood. Like do we just get free A’s without going to class or taking any tests? The answer, of course, is no. Contrary to popular belief, student-athletes like me work extremely hard to juggle what amounts to two full-time jobs — going to school and playing a sport. In other words, you may only see us in a uniform for a few hours a week, but there is a lot more going on.

You’re probably asking, So what’s Twitter have to do with all of this?

I’m getting to that … but I wasn’t picked to give a speech at my high school graduation, and was passed over again at Wisconsin … so, damn it, I’m going to take my time.

Before I came to Wisconsin, I was never heavy into politics or things like that. I thought of myself first and foremost as a basketball player. College seemed like a means to an end — more basketball. Like most teenagers, I had a worldview that had been passed down to me from my parents and their peers. Nothing wrong with that, but I didn’t question a lot of assumptions I’d formed about the world. I was going with the flow.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

What I knew about college, I knew mostly from movies. And out of the infinity movies depicting the American college experience, my unscientific research tells me that most of them boil down to a simple equation:

college = freedom

I remember the day my parents helped me move into my dorm. We said our goodbyes, the door shut behind them and suddenly I was standing by myself with my fob in my hand. That fob … it felt like it represented independence itself. And that’s when it really hit me … Alright, now I’m in college. I’m really on my own. The next four years were going to be just like those movies: Hang out with whoever you want, stay up as late as you want, go wherever you want, do whatever you’d like to do. In a word, freedom.

But what kind of freedom? As the years went on, I found out that there are a few different types.

I was a shy freshman. Off the basketball court, recognition of any kind made me uncomfortable. In fact, it’s still how I am to this day. I used to arrive early to lectures just so I could sit in the back row of the classroom or whatever seat was closest to the door — arrive first, leave fast, lie low. But I remember one day my freshman year, in Micro Econ 101, when the professor singled me out to congratulate me because our team was going to the Final Four. Everyone stood up and applauded because I was the only representative of the basketball team in the class. I was sitting in the back row practically trying to crawl under my desk to avoid the attention.


I’d always planned to pursue a degree in finance, but during my sophomore year I started to discover books that sparked my interest in history and politics, especially books about African history, civil rights, and the African-American experience in the U.S. It started with The Autobiography of Malcolm X and took off from there. I found myself thinking about things I’d never considered before. For example, when Muhammad Ali passed away last June, I remember being surprised at the way his stances against war and racism in the ‘60s had been “cleaned up” in present-day depictions of him. Back then he was a radical who risked going to jail for his beliefs. Now he was being praised by some as some kind of Disney-movie-type hero. History told me that the story was more complicated.

I started to follow the news more closely, too. My four years in college were marked by a lot of news about violence between police and African-Americans, from Ferguson to Baltimore and beyond.

Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

I was growing intellectually and spiritually. But maybe just as important, I was also being drawn out of my shell. I started to realize that I needed to develop my own beliefs and then be able to defend them with facts. One of the best things about Wisconsin is that you’ve got thousands of students from different backgrounds and they all seem to want to debate ideas. I remember more than a few times when I found myself walking behind groups of students walking around campus just to listen in on their political conversations.

(You’d be surprised at some of the things you hear.)

Soon I was sharpening my mind, and my views, on our basketball team’s group chat. We’ve had some riveting conversations, as well as just some plain ol’ stupid discussions. Jordan and Ferry are two of my favorite contributors. After all, a good idea isn’t worth a dime if it stays sleeping in your head.

I was tweeting more about stuff, too — sometimes about sports, sometimes about music and sometimes about my thoughts on life, politics and race.

And that’s how Twitter comes into play in all of this. I started noticing an interesting trend in my mentions.

Whenever I — Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin student and basketball player, class of 2017 — tweeted about something that had to do with sports, I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

But whenever I — Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin student and basketball player, class of 2017 — tweeted about something “political,” “serious,” “racial” or what have you … I noticed a pattern.

The replies usually fell into three general categories.

The first category, I’ll just call trolls … commenters trying to demean, not engage in dialogue, while hiding behind egg avatars. Need I say more?

The second type of response, and always appreciated, went something like this: Thanks for using your platform to speak your mind.

And the third response went something like this: Just shut up and play basketball! People also said things that were much worse, of course, but given that children may read this, I’ll spare you the graphic details.

And it’s this third type of response that I want to focus on for a second. I’ve been thinking a lot about it in my last days as a student.

Mark Konezny/USA TODAY Sports

Now, maybe you’re reading this and saying, I would never say that. But that’s not my point. And Twitter is not really the point here, either.

The point is, this kind of response is nothing new. As we’ve seen with athletes from Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, just to name two, there’s a long tradition in this country of telling athletes to “stick to sports.” Even my own teammate, Bronson Koenig, who had the courage to speak up for his fellow Native Americans at Standing Rock last fall, has been on the receiving end of criticism.

The message was clear: The views of athletes are of no value — we’re dumb and we should accept our roles as robots that make baskets and give brief press conferences.

It’s funny how sports is one of the only areas in which it’s “controversial” to speak your mind. We don’t tell doctors to hold their tongues about their beliefs and “stick to medicine.” We don’t tell firemen to “stick to fighting fires” at the expense of standing up for what they think is right. And we don’t even tell students to “stick to being students” and keep our mouths shut about the things that matter in society. If you look closely at the history of social movements for positive change, all over the world, you’ll notice that the college student has been the catalyst for some of modern history’s major social changes. In fact, one of the reasons you go to college — correct me if I’m wrong — is to learn how to think critically about your role in society. So do we judge athletes by different standards?

Maybe you know about the racist fan incident at a Wisconsin football game last fall. And about how the university, at first, tried to accomodate the fan.

I was part of a group of black athletes that came together to write a letter to the university, calling for Wisconsin to, and I quote, “create real programs, initiate meaningful change and understand that students of color deserve to thrive in this institution just like our peers.” We called for real action to address racial inequality on campus. We saw something that was wrong and we couldn’t hold our tongues.

To Wisconsin’s credit, it responded quickly to our letter and promised to address our concerns — and I hope it will continue to follow through. We received a lot of support from classmates and from the university community. I think a lot of people realized that standing up for what’s right is part of what college is supposed to teach you.

So one of the ugliest moments in my four years on campus turned into one of my proudest moments here at Wisconsin.

If you’re still with me, thank you for reading. I want to finish up with a message to my classmates.

I don’t have much profound advice. Our real commencement speakers will probably have much wiser things to say. But I do want to end by issuing a challenge — a challenge for us as a class, as we go out into the “real world.” What I want to say is bigger than a Twitter argument, and bigger than sports or student-athletes or any of that.

My challenge to the class of 2017 is this:

Never accept it when someone says, “Just shut up and play.” Or whatever the equivalent is in your field.

Don’t accept it when they say, “Stay in your lane.”

Let’s use all possible lanes. Let’s create new lanes. Each of us is more than just the job we do for a few hours a day.

Whether we play basketball or not.

“The paradox of education is precisely this,” James Baldwin wrote, “that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”

Thank you, Wisconsin, for helping me learn that.

(There, I just quoted a famous writer like you’re supposed to do in a graduation speech.)

And thank you to all my classmates, teammates, coaches, professors and friends for being part of a community that I will always be grateful for. If you care about something, you want to make it better. I hope that in some small way I challenged Wisconsin to be better. I know it made me a better student, athlete and person.

Oh, and one last thing: We really need to come up with a plan to pay student-athletes.

Wait, you thought I wasn’t going to mention that?

It shouldn’t even be a controversial notion. After all, I’m a finance major. It’s just the simple law of supply and demand, sprinkled with principles of the American market economy. Isn’t it interesting that collegiate athletics is one of the only American industries that doesn’t feel the need to abide by those same rules?

(Psst, I learned that in college, while playing basketball.)

So with that, my fellow classmates, let’s do this. Let’s graduate.

Truly, thanks to everyone. Much love.

On Wisconsin.