By Ellen McGirt
November 18, 2016

Several members of the University of Wisconsin’s beloved basketball team have become outspoken advocates on the subjects of race, consistently asking their university, the Big Ten Conference, the NCAA, and the community at large, to take issues of race and justice more seriously.

Stars Nigel Hayes and Jordan Hill have been seen taking a step behind their teammates during the national anthem; Hayes has lobbied persuasively for salaries for student-athletes, asked the University to do better with public racial incidents, and has posted extensively in support of the Movement for Black Lives to his 81,000 followers on Twitter.

Three of the athletes, Bronson Koenig, who is Native American, Hill, and Hayes, recently sat down with The New York Times to talk about how their activism has affected their lives. Hayes has been warned by concerned friends that the tough talk will put off potential employers. “[T]he quote I hang my hat on is, I was black before I picked up a basketball, and when I retire, I’ll still be black,” he said.

Hill is also worried. “It would be stupid for me to say that I don’t want to buy my mom a house, a car, want to make money doing what I love to do,” he began. “At the same time, I’m not going to feel good about myself with the knowledge that I’ve gained just holding my tongue.” Koenig jumped in: “That’s kind of selfish.”

It’s hard not to admire these guys, who are trying to leverage their current position power, which is both fleeting and fraught, into attention for issues that they believe will help everyone, even if they risk irritating powerful people, like franchise owners, fans and teammates.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the risks and rewards of advocating for system change lately.

I recently talked with Ray Fisman, the Slater Family Professor of Behavioral Economics at Boston University, about trust, bias, corruption and design for an upcoming story about fixing the problems in the sharing economy. (He’s also the author of a fascinating book on how markets shape our behavior.) I asked him a philosophical question: Is it possible to be a good person in a bad system? “That’s something that’s been weighing on all of us,” he says.

My question was really about policing, and some of the thornier issues of reforming municipal systems that routinely violate the rights of citizens and prey on vulnerable populations for revenue. Are you still a good cop if you look the other way when bad things happen?

But Fisman went there, instead. “Look, I’m Canadian,” he said. “I can say with 99% certainty that most of us heard about the new president and said, ‘fuck it, I’m out of here,’” he said kidding, not kidding.

His advice to people who want to change a bad system: Start by thinking about it as a binary choice: Exit versus voice. “You can exit the bad situation but then you lose your voice and your chance to influence the future,” he said. “Going in each day and banging your head against the wall, trying to make incremental change, this is hard,” he says. But that’s the flipsided gift of diversity. “Even those incremental changes are so much more valuable than if you were around like-minded people.”

When is exit the right choice? “When the system is completely corrupt,” he says. He uses the example of Serpico, the book and film about a NYC cop who blew the lid on massive corruption in the 1970s. “To be the only one in a corrupt system – where everyone is in on it, nothing good can happen. It will crush you.”

So, is he leaving the country? “No, I want to stay and make things better,” he said. And what about the organizations that we’d all like to change? They can handle the heat, he says. “In America, the institutions are strong enough for someone to blow a whistle and get things investigated,” he says. “I’m hopeful.


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