By Ellen McGirt
May 11, 2017

It’s graduation season, and as we all now know, commencement speakers have a new reach in a modern age. So, when Nigel Hayes, a graduating senior at the University of Wisconsin assigned himself the task of writing a commencement address that nobody actually asked for, it turns out that it might just be the one we all need:

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.

It’s an auspicious beginning on many levels.

Nigel Hayes is one of a handful of players on the University of Wisconsin’s much-loved basketball team who have been clear-throated on the subject of race, equity, power and the technology that drives conversations.

We wrote about Hayes last fall, after he and his teammates Jordan Hill and Bronson Koenig, who is Native American, sat down with The New York Times to talk about how they’ve used their platforms as basketball stars to talk about race.

At the time, Hayes had already lobbied persuasively for salaries for student-athletes and had posted eloquently in support of the Movement for Black Lives on Twitter. It did not always go well.

Hayes used all the conceits of the commencement form to tell the world a little about himself and offer some sage advice.

“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,” he began.

He talked about his awakening as an intellect and spiritual thinker, the benefits of a philosophically diverse student body, and how his studies in African American history helped him reframe his understanding of his own history. But as his fame on the basketball court grew, he began to chafe against the limits the world tried to put on his voice:

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.

While few thanked him, he was mostly attacked by trolls, called names, and told repeatedly to Just shut up and play basketball!

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,” he said.

If you have time, and since you don’t have a speech from Betsy DeVos to inspire you, I strongly recommend you read the speech and imagine Hayes at the podium doing the work. He does three things particularly well.

First, he speaks to the profoundly important role a university plays in providing mechanisms to help students explore diverse ideas, while also responding to their feedback when diverse views become toxic. Second, he offers solid advice for anyone who has ever been told to stay in their lane. If all goes well, he’s going to be very famous very soon, and we can expect he’ll continue to take his own advice.

And finally, he addresses the biggest inequity facing sports programs at the college level: That student athletes are doing big league work for no pay. As a finance major, he notes that not only is he robbed of the student’s natural right to protest, otherwise free markets don’t apply to the value he and his peer provide.

“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?” Perhaps some procedures shouldn’t stay standard.

*Apologies for the late dispatch! Travel and technology woes on my end. And many thanks to raceAhead reader (and Madison alum) Tony Paese for sharing Nigel’s speech. On Wisconsin.


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