WEST LAFAYETTE – Without even putting up a casual shot in warmups as his Michigan teammates swiftly took care of their first-round NCAA tournament business Saturday, Isaiah Livers’ actions spoke volumes.
The simple act of sliding into what, from a distance, appeared to be a nondescript black t-shirt with a single line of white text, and sitting just feet behind Michigan head coach Juwan Howard allowed CBS’ national broadcast cameras and a handful of on-site photographers to help transmit his message to the world: He is not NCAA property.
‘#NotNCAAProperty’ read Livers’s shirt, sold by The Players Trunk. The hashtag spread like wildfire on social media Wednesday when, just before 2 p.m. on the eve of the tournament, Livers and fellow Big Ten Conference seniors Jordan Bohannon (Iowa) and Geo Baker (Rutgers) took to Twitter to express their displeasure in college athletes’ continued fight to take ownership of their name, image and likeness rights. The NCAA currently owns and profits off of those rights handsomely.
In particular, players involved with the movement asked for four things:
- “NCAA rules to allow us representation (and) pay for use of our name, image (and) likeness by July 1st”
- “A meeting (with) NCAA president Mark Emmert”
- “Meetings (with) state (and) federal lawmakers to pass laws to give us physical, academic (and) financial protections”
- “The U.S. Supreme Court to rule in favor of plaintiffs in Alston v. NCAA (and) not to give the NCAA any power to deny us equal freedoms”
The National College Players Association, a 501c3 non-profit advocacy board organized to stand up for college athletes, issued this statement earlier this week:
“The players and the NCPA are using the hashtag #NotNCAAProperty to underscore their concern that the NCAA too often treats college athletes like dollar signs rather than people. College basketball players from multiple teams protesting NCAA rules during the NCAA’s own March Madness Tournament is unprecedented and comes at a time when lawmakers and the U.S. Supreme Court will be making decisions that will affect the freedoms and rights of generations of future athletes.”
How Livers advanced #NotNCAAProperty
Livers sat out Michigan’s 82-66 victory 16-seeded Texas Southern on Saturday due to a stress fracture in his right foot he suffered last week during the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. The senior, who is second on the Wolverines in scoring this season with 13.1 points per game on 45.7% shooting from the field and 43.1% from beyond the arc, is unlikely to play again this season.
But Livers was a regular presence in Michigan’s huddles, hobbling up and down five rows of bleachers in his walking boot and sitting stoically while the Wolverines stormed out to a 17-point lead midway through the first half and never wavered against the SWAC champions.
Livers’ shirt stood out from the rest of his teammates’ and coaches’ Michigan-branded warmup long-sleeves and pullovers. On Friday, Emmert told USA Today that the NCAA would not penalize athletes who, like Livers did Saturday, wore unlicensed gear during tournament contests featuring the viral hashtag. He even went a step further, giving his stamp of approval to students’ campaign, all while the NCAA continues to push back against some states’ efforts to further compensate athletes beyond their scholarships.
“I’m really supportive of what they’re asking for and what makes sense. I get it,” Emmert said Friday. “I’m certainly not unhappy students are using their voice to describe what they think are issues of importance to them. That’s a good thing. They’re students. They’re supposed to do that.”
On the debate regarding student-athletes’ name image and likeness rights, Emmert continued, adding, “The majority of schools very, very much want this to happen,” he said. “I think – I don’t think, I know – it’s the right place for us to be. We need to be able to allow student-athletes to monetize their name, image and likeness like other students can, except in those places where it can have a negative impact on conducting sports.”
Livers’ teammate Mike Smith, who led the Wolverines on Saturday with 18 points against the Tigers, said he was unsurprised his teammate is willing to serve as a leader in the NCPA’s charge.
“He’s going to speak his mind. Everyone has their own opinions, but he’s always going to speak his mind,” Smith said. “That’s all I can say about that.”
In the moments following Saturday’s victory, Livers retweeted multiple posts pointing to his silent advocacy, but had not yet issued any additional public statements explaining his choice of shirt during Saturday’s game.
Despite Livers’ constant presence in team huddles Saturday, Michigan coach Juwan Howard – a former Wolverines player who, alongside his Fab Five teammates, served on the front lines of the college athlete empowerment movement in the mid-90’s – said he wasn’t aware of his star senior’s silent protest from the bench.
“I didn’t pay any attention to (Livers’) shirt,” he said postgame. “I was so locked into the game, game prep for Texas Southern, that I didn’t play attention to his t-shirt.”
Howard, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson once wore their blue warmup shirts inside out pregame to hide the “Michigan” and “Nike” logos they felt made them walking billboards for the brands.
During Howard’s initial Big Ten media day session in 2019, he stated he wasn’t knowledgeable enough yet to claim a stance on players’ push for increased NIL rights. But a year ago, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel endorsed legislation that was gaining steam and would give athletes the ability to profit off their popularity in college.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said last April in an interview with radio station WTKA 1050-AM in Ann Arbor. “We need to put some more protections in there for the institution; for the student-athlete, quite frankly. But I think we’ve already been doing it.
“In the general sense, I think this is good for (our student-athletes).”
Livers hints at increased advocacy
Though Emmert praised the dozens of vocal athletes earlier this week, he stated he and the NCAA would take issue if silent protests like Livers’ progressed into actual disruption of the 67 games taking place in central Indiana.
“As long as it doesn’t create any risks in any fashion, I’m going to be pretty flexible,” Emmert said. “But we can’t have it be something that interferes with the game.”
Such action nearly took hold, starting with the Michigan men’s basketball team, ahead of the 2018 Final Four in San Antonio.
Nearly a year ago during an interview on The Athletic’s “The Beat” podcast, former Michigan guard Duncan Robinson, who now plays for the NBA’s Miami Heat, said he nearly instigated a four-team boycott of that year’s Friday open-practice. Teams run what, in essence, is a one-hour show for fans that often includes dunk contests or simple, yet flashy, drills. Then, they still have to undergo the day’s actual practice.
“The (open) practice is literally us parading around, dunking, shooting 3s,” Robinson said on The Beat. “It might be great for fans and I understand that, but that felt like the epitome of what was wrong with the NCAA.
“I started to feel that this is kind of dangerous and this could kind of start to take on a life that we don’t necessarily want it to.”
Earlier this week, though, Livers said he could see such a protest happening. In an interview with the New York Times, Livers said, “I could see some delays,” in reference to tournament games.
“I can see a lot of that. There’s definitely plans ahead. I don’t want to break the news, but we’re going to use our voices, our actions.”
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.