Up Next

NCAA Tournament

Wisconsin Badgers are both a basketball team and a social justice incubator

This could be the most woke team in the NCAA tournament

NEW YORK — The power forward is suing the NCAA for exploitation, the shooting guard is driving 14 hours to protect clean water on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and the redshirt junior decided not to curtail his activism because basketball season “doesn’t mean black people stop getting killed by police.”

Nigel Hayes reads Malcolm X, quotes Muhammad Ali and goes baseline in the clutch.

Bronson Koenig donates power generators in the North Dakota frost, said he will “die for my people, if I have to,” and drops in 3-point bombs with aplomb.

Jordan Hill’s signature step-back happens during the national anthem, he “advises” Vice President Mike Pence on Black History Month tweets and gets in more grills than George Foreman.

Oh, and the coach, Wisconsin’s Greg Gard, is down with all of it.

“I want to look at this from 30,000 feet, not just, ‘They’re athletes,’ ” Gard said Thursday afternoon in a darkened hallway at Madison Square Garden. “There’s more to their life than that. Basketball is going to disappear from their life one day, and it’s going to disappear faster than they want it to. But there are other things in their life that will have more relevancy, where they can have more of an impact on people.”

Thoughtful. Forward-looking. Open to his players’ ideas. How does the man keep his job?

Well, it probably helps that Gard’s team is playing Florida Friday night in the NCAA round of 16. The Wisconsin Badgers are unfathomably just two wins away from their third Final Four in four years, and no one knows whether they are a cause, a team or something in between.

It’s unclear whether they will cut down the NCAA East Regional nets this weekend at Madison Square Garden, save mankind or both.

Either way, they are social-justice warriors camouflaged in cardinal and white. Wisconsin doesn’t make you cue up Luther Vandross’ “One Shining Moment” as much as Bob Marley’s “Get up, stand up, don’t give up the fight!”

“I care a lot about my people, black people,” Hill said, among a row of white teammates, most of whom nod their head in agreement. “And I feel free to speak on it whenever I’m asked about it. There’s nothing that shouldn’t be said when something is wrong.”

Hayes not only had the move of the tournament – borrowing Michael Jordan’s double-back along the baseline, circa Knicks-Bulls ’90s, to beat No. 1 Villanova, he has been perhaps college sports’ most visible advocate for social change. Really, what other senior power forward in America – what other player in an NCAA tournament – is suing the very entity putting on the games for a share of all those corporate sponsors’ billions?

He is a plaintiff in a lawsuit seeking more than just stipends that prevent players from even taking meal money from someone on a campus that sells their numbered jersey for $80 in the university store.

“I don’t know how much money I’ve brought in [to Wisconsin],” Hayes told Vice Sports last fall. “But it probably has been millions. I know Final Fours generate a lot of money, and I’ve been to two of those. So I deserve a check. Yeah. Just like all my teammates.”

He used his 96,000-follower Twitter platform to educate the masses on the meaning of Black Lives Matter: “#BreastCancerAwarenessMonth is “racist”, #AllCancersMatter #AllLivesMatter & #BlueLivesMatter people, you see how silly that looks?”

And when LaVar Ball, the Marine One of helicopter parents, said he wanted to package his three wunderkind, ball-playing sons to garner a $1 billion shoe deal from an apparel giant such as Nike, Adidas or Under Armour recently, Hayes tweeted him back with advice:

“Mr. Ball, love the support/faith you have in your boys. One suggestion, take the $1B up front. A 10yr, $100M annuity costs you $30M+”

Hayes was asked Thursday, as he sat at the podium in a postpractice press conference at Madison Square Garden, why he has chosen to be so outspoken. “You have the ability to change a lot of lives or bring change to a lot of situations in life based on your voice, based on the things you say and do – just knowing that basketball is a small part of our lives and we can use it as a vehicle to go through our life and make it a better place.”

Koenig, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, added, “I kind of realize I have a voice, especially in the Native American community. And my mother has always kind of pushed me to be that role model to use my voice, so I’m just doing what I think is right.”

There is a shared outlook among the players at Wisconsin, moments where Hayes, Hill and their teammates grasp both the problems facing African-Americans in this country and the gravity of thousands of Native Americans in North Dakota fighting to preserve sacred burial grounds and prevent water contamination from the planned Dakota Access Pipeline.

Once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’ll remember forever,” Koenig said of his 14-hour journey with his brother and basketball trainer in an 18-wheeler trailer stuffed with donated food, clothing and power generators last year. “Just being on a field, in North Dakota, cold as hell with thousands of Native Americans, not only from that area but from the whole continent of indigenous people and just feeling, like, one.”

Before he left, Hayes went by his room in the apartment complex they share.

Wisconsin Badgers forward Nigel Hayes (No. 10) makes a crucial layup in the winning minutes of the second half during the NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball championship game between Wisconsin Badgers and Villanova Wildcats at the Key Bank Center in Buffalo, New York.

Jerome Davis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Koenig wanted advice about what to say when he spoke about the issue on CNN. He asked Hayes about dealing with the Black Lives Matter struggle. They began educating each other, to the point that Hayes could repeat the fact that every treaty between the U.S. government and Native Americans had been broken.

Last November, Hayes and more than two dozen Wisconsin black athletes used their Twitter accounts to demand change after an Oct. 29 home football game at which two people donned a Halloween costume depicting President Barack Obama in a noose. The incident led to Hayes and Hill taking a step back during the national anthem two weeks later, another protest supported by their coach.

“Those guys have made me a better coach,” Gard said. “And it hasn’t been anything about basketball or X’s and O’s. They’ve helped me open my eyes to different issues in the world. You get a better understanding of what people’s thoughts are, the depth of their knowledge, it gives me a lot of pride that they’ve used their experience at the University of Wisconsin, their platform, to help impact change and help others.”

The irony, of course, is that Hayes and Koenig and Wisconsin’s other seniors are the embodiment of the student-athlete the NCAA is always boasting about during its annual academic scandals and too-regular occurrences of domestic abuse or other criminal activity. These kids didn’t just hang around campus to play basketball for year and then bolt, but stayed, matured and became educated men.

Meantime, 14 of the first 15 picks in this June’s NBA draft could very well be one-and-done freshmen. Kentucky and UCLA could have a five-man team among the first 13 picks.

How can you not root for Hayes, Koenig, Hill and Wisconsin to win on the court and in life, to help change a flawed college athletic system and an exponentially more-flawed world?

Here’s hoping they cut down the nets this weekend, and that CBS works Bob Marley into the montage.

Mike Wise is a senior writer and columnist at The Undefeated. Barack Obama once got to meet him.