College basketball is a cash cow. The NCAA Tournament broadcasting rights are now worth over a $1 billion a year and Division I coaches continue reap the rewards of multiple revenue streams, increasingly raking in millions per season. So you can understand why Ben Simmons was boisterous about the inequities of being a student-athlete during his one season at LSU.
Jay Williams, whose book Life Is Not An Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention is now available, may have had a different experience while on campus, finishing his degree at Duke during his junior year, but he understands the conundrum that haunts college athletics, especially its top players who are increasingly using their voices to advocate for some kind of compensation. “It’s almost like modern day slavery,” says Williams, who believes things probably aren’t going to fundamentally change with the NCAA and its arcane bylaws in the near future.
Complex spoke to the ESPN college basketball analyst before the season kicked off to talk the big picture college athletics, why Kyrie Irving is the best Duke player he's seen, and why he’s a marijuana advocate for players’ pain remedies.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
College basketball’s major conferences have rapidly changed over the past 10 years and continue to pull in very high revenue numbers. Do you believe college players should/will ever be paid?
I see the NCAA holding off as long as possible to continue to make money off of its players. It’s almost like modern day slavery. [Wisconsin forward] Nigel Hayes really made some big statements during the football game when Wisconsin played Ohio State. He held up a sign that said, “Broke College Athlete, Anything Helps” and he actually gave his Venmo name, which I found to be hysterical. When you start looking at the value of an education, I can understand how regular students get angered by this. I have a lot of friends who are still paying off their debt, and I understand the value of an education. But at the same time, when it comes to these athletes you have to look at things differently. If you were to play for Wisconsin, your college education costs $160,000 dollars. Even Coach K was on First Take recently talking about the value of all the things they do for each these athletes besides school is probably another $100,000 dollars. And now that still pennies in comparison to what these conferences make. Nigel Hayes made a great point that said the [Big Ten] conference had $450 million in total revenue during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2015. But that figure represents nearly a $110 million increase over what it had in pulled in during its 2014 fiscal year.
I’m an advocate of marijuana if it can be prescribed. I always go back to the point of when I was playing and if I were to have rolled my ankle during a playoff game, nobody’s stopping me from playing the next game after I’ve taken ibuprofen 800 or maybe 1600 milligrams, or if I’ve taken a Percocet or a Vicodin.
How can you relate to Nigel Hayes with your former life playing for a top D-1 college program?
For the athlete it’s like “I’m happy to receive my education, and that the university is doing so much more for me besides that. Yet at the same time they’re treating it like it’s a job for me.” It’s a responsibility to wake up at 5 a.m. every morning to train from 5:30 until 7:30, whether it be weightlifting, endurance training, getting shots up, then you go to class like a regular student from 8 to 3 p.m. in the afternoon— that’s if my course load are actually legitimate courses. I’ve heard cases in which coaches have told their players, “We have to lighten your course load because it’s starting to hinder your play on the court.” So what’s the priority? Is it my education, or is it my performance on the court? And after that’s over, you’re having practice from 3 to 6. Then you have your training meal from 7 to 8. And then you’re watching film from 8 to 8:30. Then you’re having study hall from 8:30 until 10, and then you wake up the next day to do it all again. That’s a full-time job. When your jersey sales make over millions of dollars, and the school and head coaches profit off of that. The athletic director then puts it in the coach’s contract, “If I make it to the Sweet 16, I get a bump in my pay; if I make it to the Elite 8, I get a bump in my pay; if I make it to the Final Four, my pay increases; if we win the whole thing, I get a major bonus.” Everybody has incentives and treats this like a business other than the players. Like if I were still a player, and you bought me a steak and the meal cost $250, my whole college career can be null and void. I think that’s ridiculous.
In your book Life Is Not an Accident: A Memoir of Reinvention, you addressed taking prescription painkillers during your playing days. Why do you think painkillers addictions among college and professional basketball players not talked about in the media?
I’m an advocate of marijuana if it can be prescribed. I always go back to the point of when I was playing and if I were to have rolled my ankle during a playoff game, nobody’s stopping me from playing the next game after I’ve taken ibuprofen 800 or maybe 1600 milligrams, or if I’ve taken a Percocet or a Vicodin. I just think that it’s a double standard that when cannabis is thrown into the equation these players end up getting demonized. They get criticized by not only the media, but by fans and their team’s management. A prime example is Ezekiel Elliot going into a cannabis dispensary, but not actually purchasing something there. And everyone is talking about this the next day, plus Jerry Jones makes a statement that he can’t have this type of behavior. That conversation needs to change because opiates are extremely addicting, and nobody’s testing these guys for Vicodin or Percocet because it’s socially acceptable. There are some guys who can go through a six-pack of beer by themselves, and then get in their cars after coming home off a chartered plane to drive themselves home, yet nobody says anything about that.
Will the legalization of marijuana in several states remove the stigma regarding college basketball players using it?
I think that the NBA is starting to have those types of conversations. The NBA is way more progressive than the NFL or MLB. My other point is that if I decide to rub cannabis oil on my knee, which decreases inflammation, and seeps into my skin, then gets into my bloodstream, I could be fined or suspended which I think is complete B.S. This needs to be readdressed as the drug is being legalized, and becomes more socially acceptable as it goes through that process. Then I think people will eventually come around to not debasing it as much.
Who do you believe is the best point guard out of Duke to make it in the NBA?
I remember seeing Kyrie [Irving] when he played at St. Patrick’s High School in New Jersey. I’m from New Jersey, too. He was a little frail, but he was super talented back then. What I meant by that is that he found a way to get himself in all of the nooks and crannies of the defense. He had a variety of moves where he could make shots over big men, under big men, through bigs; it didn’t matter what you put in front of him. He had that versatility and when I watched him play his freshman year [at Duke], it was clear to me that his basketball IQ was off the charts. And he was only getting quicker, bigger, and stronger. Now there are a lot of things that I thought I could do, Tommy Amaker, or Bobby Hurley could do, but after watching Kyrie, I knew that he was going to be the best. I hold to that I’ve never seen anyone play the game the way he plays it. He’s a special one. Hey, I was competitive as hell if you had put me up against anybody in 2002 or 2003. I had a lot of dog in me. But people don’t realize that it’s never a one-on-one matchup when it comes to a point guard because they are involved in so many screen-and-roll opportunities that they match-up ends up being that point guard versus the big man. And that’s where Ky is exceptional making plays not only for himself but for his teammates.
Did you take your job at ESPN knowing it could be a great way to remove you from that perception as "the guy who threw it all away?"
Now it’s like there’s less doubt that I can talk about a plethora of sports instead of breaking down one sport in particular. But it was a major adjustment for me watching guys who I had just competed against three or four years prior who are making $50 to $60 million dollars signing those types of contracts. These same guys who I played against and was better than. That was a challenge for me to go into an occupation in which I didn’t know exactly what I was talking about.
Do you consider this job to be your proudest accomplishment since you left the NBA?
I would be remiss to say that I got my job because of what I was able to accomplish in college, not because of what I was able to accomplish television-wise. I was two-time National Player of the Year, second overall pick in the NBA Draft, and that gave me a spot on the desk at ESPN It’s my job to know 350-plus Division 1 teams like it’s the back of my hand: what conferences they play in; what their rosters are; knowing transfers; coaching changes; conference realignments; and to have an opinion on it. That’s a daunting task when you have no idea anymore who’s even in the conference that you played in four years prior. Plus, I went from being lucky enough to make millions of dollars and then to a job where I’m making barely $40,000 per year. That’s still a lot of money compared to what a lot of people make, but I was still angry at my own personal issues. It was major, major challenge. I didn’t have the love for it whereas now the camera is my new basketball court. It’s a game of intellectual jousting. If I take five seconds to think about something on TV, that five seconds is an eternity. It’s challenging but I’m passionate about it. I love it.