Sports, as we all know, don’t actually matter. But in our culture and others we humans expend some of our finite journalistic resources to take sports seriously. We can justify doing this because sports have a way of synthesizing and analogizing real life and handing it back to us in chewable form, like a little Jackie Robinson-shaped multivitamin.
In other words, sports arguments are practice arguments. The stakes are low, creating the opportunity to be wrong without consequence. Through that process we can develop a greater ability to think critically, argue logically, and express ourselves more successfully when the stakes are high. Like, for example, we are deciding what should be our country’s policy on torture or what can be done to reduce instances of violence between police and the citizenry.
But if this Mike DeCourcy column on Wisconsin basketball player Nigel Hayes is any indication, we could use a little extra drill work.
This is not to pick on DeCourcy, a good columnist who has written many good columns. It’s just that he is the latest person to make the very common mistake of evaluating an argument based on the identity of the arguer.
Hayes, a senior forward, has had enough success as an amateur basketball player that he could be a professional basketball player right this minute. Though undersized for a big man, his good footwork and craftiness in the post mean he would be well compensated for his work, whether in the NBA or overseas. Instead, Hayes chose to accept the deal he currently gets as a student-athlete at Wisconsin – a full scholarship including room and board, plus all the other nice things that go along with being a star athlete on a major-college campus. It’s not as good a deal as it should be, but it’s still pretty good.
Because of this, DeCourcy argues that Hayes is not the right guy to be going around saying college athletes should be paid for their work in real, actual dollars as opposed to being converted into what might as well be called NCAA Bucks – there seems to be some funny business going on with the exchange rate, there.
There was no shortage of opportunity available to a player of Hayes’ skills and accomplishments.
So it seems curious he would announce to the world on Saturday morning that he was getting a terrible deal. He carried a sign near the set of ESPN’s College GameDay program stating, “Broke College Athlete … Anything Helps”. And he listed an account on Venmo, a digital sharing app, that presented the opportunity for those interested to assist with a payment.
Setting aside the logistics of paying college players, the Title IX implications and the real and perceived value of a college scholarship, Nigel Hayes’ status as a prospect is irrelevant to the content of his argument, which is that he is an employee of the University of Wisconsin athletic department, and should be paid market price for his services.
We don’t need to check Hayes’ DraftExpress page or look at his checking account in order to evaluate that assertion.
The NCAA contends that its players are not employees, and that battle is playing out in the courts as we speak. I disagree with the NCAA, but not on the grounds that its president, Mark Emmert, is a hypocrite. He may well be, and with enough effort we in the press could probably convict him as such in the court of public opinion. But that wouldn’t put any money in Nigel Hayes’ pockets, or anyone else’s.
Likewise, suggesting that Hayes is unqualified to speak on the topic because he had other options is rhetorically identical to saying Colin Kaepernick shouldn’t talk about police violence because he isn’t any good (or saying that Cam Newton should, because he is).
Evaluating an idea based on the marketability of its pitchman is a waste of everyone’s time. Besides, Nigel Hayes is no pitchman. Nobody chose him for this, and his collegiate career will be long over before college basketball players get paid, anyway. He’s just a guy with a perspective, and enough notoriety to make the news by expressing it.
If it were true that an athletic scholarship amounted to fair compensation for all college athletes in revenue sports, the NCAA and its member institutions would have nothing to fear from the free market. The term “student-athlete” was invented by a man named Walter Byers as a way of dodging labor laws, and to this point it has been a big success at that.
That’s just as true whether it is said by Nigel Hayes, Mike DeCourcy or Donald Trump.
There are, perhaps, some good reasons why college basketball players shouldn’t be paid, but Nigel Hayes having options isn’t among them.