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Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and the Badgers’ men’s basketball team are living the Wisconsin Idea

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The public activism of Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes is part of a long Wisconsin tradition.

Hayes

A little over a century ago, Wisconsin started an experiment.

The idea, crazy for its time, was that honest, competent government, partnered with thoughtful, moderate, progressive reform would improve the lives of the state’s citizens. It was first championed by a Republican, Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, but later found life in state politics on both sides of the aisle as well as in big national policy including the New Deal, New Frontier and Great Society programs. It has deeply influenced political thought in the state ever since.

For the university, the Wisconsin Idea is pretty simple: education should influence people’s lives beyond the boundaries of the classroom. It speaks to the critical need for public service and the notion that the a university that divorces learning from the world with which it is supposed to engage does both its students and its community a disservice. The influence of the Wisconsin Idea, whether we see it directly or not, can be felt throughout the halls from Bascom to Babcock. It grounds the school and ties its work to the people of the state in ways that other “public ivies” don’t. It is part of what makes the school so special. (And yes, UW is special in many ways).

For the past few years, UW basketball has been on an unprecedented run of success. Two Final Fours (and a few Grayson Allen flops away from a title) with a historically great team. A Sweet Sixteen appearance last year with a young team, led by a just-barely-out-of-the-interim-tag coach. Now on the cusp of 2016-17, we see a team stepping into the big expectations we have for the season. (And donuts, lots and lots of donuts).

Because the basketball team has been so good for so long, we have watched the seniors of the team grow up, carrying with them pressures and attention that few of us deal with at age 20. They are doing so in a high-profile athletic endeavor born of herculean hard work and extraordinary luck. Luck that they were born 6’8 and not 5’2. Luck that their knees have held up over tens of thousands of cuts and plants. Luck that they had parents and siblings and teachers and coaches and mentors who gave a little (or a lot) to help them achieve a dream. Now some of these young men are themselves stepping forward to serve.

A member of the Ho-Chunk tribe, Bronson Koenig has been speaking to Native American groups since his freshman year. As his stature as a player has grown, so has his visibility in Native American communities and, in particular with young people. It’s a job he takes seriously, telling Yahoo Sports:

“There aren’t many Native American LeBron James and Colin Kaepernicks in professional sports really, so I look at myself like I’m kind of in their position. I’m still in college, but I’m still one of the more well known Native American athletes in this country. So I kind of feel obligated to speak up for our people.”

Koenig has embraced his status as a role model. Earlier this month, he, his brother Miles and trainer Clint Parks traveled to North Dakota to join the protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. They held a basketball clinic in Fort Yates, N.D., for over 100 boys and girls, where Koenig led drills and met with the attendees.

Nigel Hayes has a long history of speaking out on issues. In 2014, he joined the lawsuit against the NCAA challenging limits on athlete compensation. He broke onto the national stage during the 2015 NCAA tournament. Funny, endearing, eminently quotable and a bit infatuated with the press conference stenographer, Hayes became a media and fan darling (and, oh, those donuts).

Last week, Hayes went on a lengthy Twitter discourse, engaging with a number of followers on racial relations in the U.S.

It was raw and passionate and thoughtful and led to press both local and national. It was the type of discussion we have come to expect from Hayes.

Since Charles Barkley famously declared that he was not a role model, we’ve seen a number of athletes shy away from social engagement. It’s the smart play, really, or at least the safe one. It’s easier to stand aside from the debate, considering the tremendous costs associated with activism for student athletes (and not just from trolls hounding their social media).

We are in the midst of a national dialogue right now about some of the biggest issues of them all. What America means. What it means to be American. It’s scary. It’s deeply personal and, most of the time, terribly painful. It frankly feels like the most sensible thing to do is to find a quiet hole to hide in and just stay the heck out of the fray.

Activism for athletes like Koenig and Hayes, who are looking to compete professionally, is particularly fraught. This past spring, Hayes found out that he was a fringe draftee and returned to school for his senior year. It is quite likely that, like Frank Kaminsky before him, Hayes will play his way back into the first round. But nothing is guaranteed. Between the opinions of owners, fans, sponsors and the media, there is a risk that engagement in issues of controversy could be a deal-breaker for some teams. Vocal activism at age 20 is one thing. Vocal activism that could cost you millions of dollars is something else.

It is striking to me, then, that these young, intelligent men have chosen to very publicly engage in a thoughtful and thought-provoking way. It would be easier to not. There are three-pointers to practice and courses to study for. But if we’re going to fix this horrible, terrible, beautiful-but-oh-god-what-a-mess world we are living in right now, we need all the smart and passionate minds we can get to stand up and take a risk. If we are going to survive and thrive, we need men who are willing to drive 11 hours to hold a basketball camp because it was something that just needed to be done. Men who are willing to dialogue patiently with others for hours about race when each and every response is being recorded and has to survive the high wire and high voltage of public scrutiny.

I am excited for this season. I am excited for the possibilities both on and off the court. I wonder at the conversations being held in the locker room right now between young men of all different races and backgrounds, from La Crosse, Wis., to Toledo, Ohio, to Antwerp, Belgium, and points between. I wonder what fruit those conversations—and the ones happening now throughout our country—might bear.

These young men embody the Wisconsin Idea. They are taking their education—in the classroom, on the court—into the world and doing what they can to make it better than they found it. They are striking out bravely, confidently, because their communities need it. We all need it.

The experiment continues.