Koenig, Hayes tuned in to more than basketball

Nigel Hayes, shown playing for Wisconsin on Tuesday, has offered public comments on multiple social issues. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

LAHAINA — Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes are unquestionably Wisconsin’s leaders on the floor.

The guidance and maturity the seniors have shown, however, reaches much farther than any gym.

Koenig, who is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, protested with fellow Native Americans against the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota in September.

“We’re college students. So we’re kind of in the loop with everything with the social-media age. You can put something on video and everybody kind of knows about it, which is sometimes convenient,” Koenig said after scoring a game-high 20 points in a 73-57 win over Georgetown at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational on Tuesday at the Lahaina Civic Center. “That’s kind of how I learned about the pipeline protest and everything like that. Coach (Greg) Gard has given me full support and has been behind me since the few days before I actually went there.

“We talked about it and same goes with the team. They all have my back, they all support me 100 percent and that’s really a good feeling.”

Bronson Koenig of Wisconsin goes up for a shot in Tuesday’s game. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Hayes, this year’s Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, drew national attention when he showed up near the ESPN College GameDay set in October before a Wisconsin home football game with a sign reading “Broke College Athlete,” in reference to the possibility of paying college athletes beyond scholarships.

“The fact of the matter is that those two young men, specifically, have used their college education, and their experience at Wisconsin, for something way more than just playing basketball,” Gard said. “When I sat down with both of them and talked about their specific areas of social injustice. … Obviously as Bronson mentioned, before he went out to the Dakotas — ‘Why do you want to do this? Is there something behind it?’

“And to hear him talk about the history of it — he’s not even a member of that tribe that’s there — but just to hear his knowledge based on the history, it was something that three or four years ago probably he didn’t have the wherewithal to do. He didn’t understand the situation and also understand the impact he could make.

“I think that’s what they both understood, or understand, the position they’re in as highly visible college basketball players. As I’ve always said, ‘Everybody can point at problems around our country. Who can be part of the solution?’ I think that’s the nice part about Bronson spending that weekend out there. He’s trying to be part of the solution and trying to help those people and be supportive of those people who are out there at that pipeline.”

In September, Hayes went on social media to speak out about racism, police brutality and inequality after killings of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement in North Carolina and Oklahoma.

“To White America, black athletes should only entertain,” Hayes tweeted. “Once they speak on social issues, they’ve gone too far. …”

Fellow senior Zak Showalter voiced the type of support Koenig described.

“I’ll just say that it’s cool to see guys like (Hayes) and Bronson really using their platform in kind of speaking out for all college basketball and not just doing it selfishly for themselves,” Showalter said. “They realize that people are going to listen to what they say and I think a lot of NBA guys and NFL guys have really used that platform as well. I think it’s cool to see teammates using their voices in making an impact farther than basketball.”

Vitto Brown backed up his teammates as well.

“It shows a lot about their character that they’re able to put the spotlight on things bigger than themselves and are not afraid take some of the criticisms that they might receive from doing so,” Brown said. “I definitely commend both of them.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.