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Nigel Hayes is the perfect guy to make the players’ case against the NCAA

You can agree or disagree with Nigel Hayes on the merits, but it’s his case to make.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional Practice
Nigel Hayes grudgingly speaks into NCAA-branded microphone.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Nigel Hayes hasn’t been shy about criticizing the NCAA, and he made waves over the weekend by bringing a funny sign to ESPN’s College GameDay taping in Madison on Saturday.

Standing atop Bascom Hill while crowds milled around for the network’s flagship pregame show, Hayes innocently held a sign that read, “Broke College Athlete Anything Helps” with a nod to Venmo money to a “Brokebadger1” account.

The Sporting News’s Mike DeCourcy responded with a critical article titled, “Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes seems like the wrong guy to be protesting the NCAA,” arguing that Hayes is not well-positioned to be making the players’ case against the NCAA.

DeCourcy’s argument is that Hayes had other options and freely chose to come back to play college basketball. Therefore, he shouldn’t be complaining:

It was his decision to compete as a senior. He could have stayed in the draft, gone to summer league and into an NBA training camp. He could have signed to play professionally overseas if none of that went exactly as he wished. 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.

This is a bad argument because it ignores the fact that all of Hayes’s options had drawbacks and downsides. His options were: (1) Ignore all the expert advice he received and stay in the draft; (2) Leave the country; or (3) Return to NCAA basketball. Returning to play his senior season was clearly Hayes’s best option, but that doesn’t mean the NCAA system is perfect or fair or even good—and it in no way diminishes Hayes’s standing to agitate to make the NCAA a better deal for players in his position. Yet that is the premise of DeCourcy’s contention.

Indeed, Hayes is the perfect person to argue that the NCAA system under-compensates players for their contributions to the multi-billion-dollar industry that is college sports. To be sure, participating in college sports is a good and fair deal for many athletes, particularly those in non-revenue sports. They are getting a thing of great value (a free college education) in exchange for essentially pursuing a passion (playing sports). But it’s also undeniable that this good deal comes in exchange for a less-than-market-value deal for the few elite athletes in the revenue sports who fund the entire enterprise.

Nigel Hayes is one of those few. He’s also a star and a celebrity who, but for the NCAA’s amateurism rules, could easily be monetizing that. So it’s very easy to imagine tweaks to the NCAA rules that would benefit players like Hayes directly.

Now, you can argue that those tweaks would be cracks in the dam, and that allowing Hayes to seek endorsements would somehow bring down the whole system, or at least lead to a net loss in welfare for student-athletes. Fine, make those arguments. But don't make the silly argument that Hayes isn’t extremely well-positioned to make the moral and economic case for his side of the debate.