CHARLOTTE — It’s a Thursday, the college basketball season is about to start, the entire landscape is shifting all around him and Jay Bilas has gotta go to work.
This is how Bilas starts his day: logs on to Twitter, types out a rap lyric from a Young Jeezy song and appends his signature addition: “I gotta go to work.” It usually looks something like this: Straight from the bottom, tryin’ to make it to the top. What the government don’t give you, gotta get it from the block. I gotta go to work.
Did we mention Bilas is a 50-year-old attorney, a popular analyst for ESPN and the loudest voice in a growing chorus demanding seismic changes in college sports? He might not seem like the typical Jeezy disciple, but Bilas is anything but boring or predictable. On this morning, he tweeted: Spilled something on my tux, I couldn’t even make the dinner. My pain is their pleasure, I’m the saint and the sinner. I gotta go to work.
And sure enough later that day, after meeting with Charlotte Hornets officials for morning coffee and stopping by his law office downtown to study tape of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, he had to head back home to don a tux for a speaking engagement. Bilas already had a good idea what he wanted to say at the night’s function, a black-tie dinner for the Hickory Sportsman’s Club, an all-male audience about an hour north of Charlotte. As perhaps the most well-known critic of the NCAA, he makes an impassioned argument that college athletes should be paid.
“I happen to think the future is decided,” Bilas said. “I think that toothpaste is out of the tube.”
Bilas never intended to lead this crusade, but by virtue of his platform, his background and his research, knowledge and delivery of the subject, he has become the grand marshal of a movement to upend the way college sports operates: Accept that it’s big business, do away with the notion of amateurism, pay college athletes.
The system has reached a fork in the road, and Bilas has gone from being a backseat driver to someone who has a hand on the steering wheel. He has his ESPN audience, his 750,000 Twitter followers, the ears of coaches and administrators and certainly the attention of NCAA officials, who are clinging tightly to a system they’ve championed for more than a century.
“He’s different,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his former pupil. “He can go in-depth, and he’s not afraid to tackle any issue.”
There are 220 men in tuxes in the banquet room at Rock Barn Golf & Spa. They’ve laid waste to cocktail hour, devoured steak-and-chicken dinners and are ready for the night’s speaker.
Neill McGeachy is the athletic director at nearby Lenoir-Rhyne and a former basketball coach at Duke. He was tasked with introducing Bilas. As a former player at Duke, McGeachy reminded the audience, Bilas played in the national title game in 1986. After a brief stint playing overseas, he came back to Duke as an assistant coach, moonlighting as a law-school student. He joined a big Charlotte law firm in 1992 before ESPN started beaming him into homes to dissect offenses and defensive strategy. Now it seems Bilas is everywhere.
“There are several secrets to giving a great introduction,” Bilas quipped when he got to the microphone, “and apparently they’re still a secret to Neill McGeachy.”
Bilas didn’t refer to any notes and didn’t dare crack a smile, but he managed to fire off one-liners in rapid-fire succession.
“The guy that invented the tuxedo, do you think he would’ve pushed on if he knew this would be the [expletive] results? . . . People say, ‘You played for Coach K? That’s a million dollar education you got playing for that man.’ I say, ‘Yeah, and he shoved it up my [backside] a nickel at a time.’ ”
Bilas skewered the hosts, guests and himself. The room was old, white and hanging on every word. Many were pounding their dinner table in laughter.
Almost without notice, the comedy routine turned into a dissertation on economics and college sports, and Bilas made a promise with the audience: “This year is gonna be a different year than last year,” he said. “In a lot of ways.”
Bilas doesn’t really practice with Moore & Van Allen these days, but he maintains an “of counsel” title, helps with recruitment and business development and keeps his license up-to-date. Up on the 44th floor of a 45-story building, most attorneys are engrossed in high-end litigation and legal representation. In his office, Bilas is usually watching basketball. His degrees from Duke and his state bar certificate are framed but on the floor leaning against a wall.
Bilas’s home is on a tree-lined street, and inside many walls are decorated with his wife’s paintings: mountains, trees, lush green landscapes. But there’s one wall in his home office that particularly stands out. It’s basically a road map of Bilas’s adult life, so many major life events and characters framed and on display. His wife, Wendy, when she was a Duke cheerleader, golf, basketball, kids, meetings with U.S. presidents, championship rings and snapshots with Dick Vitale and Bobby Knight.
Up in the corner is a framed movie review from Bilas’s forgettable acting debut, a 1990 sci-fi movie starring Dolph Lundgren. The first line of the Los Angeles Times review: “‘I Come in Peace’ is stale through and through . . . drenched in violence and devoid of so much as a whiff of real life.”
A bit below that is a framed courtroom sketch from the case that essentially marked the end of Bilas’s legal career. It depicts a judge, Bilas, a couple other attorneys and three purple dinosaurs.
“In a way, it’s the dumbest case I’ve ever been a part of,” he says, “and also the best case I’ve ever been a part of.”
Bilas’s firm was representing a local man who specialized in high-end costume rentals. One in particular — a big purple creature with a green belly named Hillary the Hippo — bore more than a passing resemblance to Barney, the singing dinosaur that enthralled children on public television. Lyons Partnership owned Barney and sued in federal court to defend its trademark and copyright. It was a contentious case, and every detail was a battle. Bilas even had to subpoena Barney to court — and after a heated hearing the dinosaur showed up in character with someone inside.
Bilas and his colleagues won the case, but it took its toll.
“I was getting dressed for work and had the TV on in the bedroom,” Bilas recalled. “The ‘Today’ show was on, and some guy’s up there, yakking about something, and I’m talking back to the television set, arguing. My wife said, ‘You need to get this trial over with and quit.’ ”
He did. He had been working games for ESPN since 1995 but decided in 1999 to go full time. He now does two games most weeks — about 50 by season’s end — in addition to regular studio work.
“When we were in college, he’s the guy that would have the spoon after the game, sticking it up to your face and asking you questions,” said Stanford Coach Johnny Dawkins, a teammate of Bilas’s at Duke.
There wasn’t one moment when Bilas decided he had to speak up against the NCAA. It was a slow evolution, he said, with roots in his own playing days. Back then, he was a student representative on an NCAA long-range planning committee. “They treated us great,” he said. “But we were not listened to.”
As an announcer two decades later, he felt uncomfortable calling out a player, coach or referee while staying silent on larger systematic matters. He doesn’t harp on these issues during games but won’t bite his tongue during studio appearances, and his Twitter feed is like a firehouse. His voice has only grown louder in recent years.
“But it’s always on behalf of what he thinks is right and what’s fair,” said Harvard Coach Tommy Amaker, a former Duke teammate. “Sometimes that goes against certain sides of this whole business that we find ourselves in.”
In August 2013, Bilas began tweeting screen-grabs from the NCAA’s online store showing that fans searching on the name of a a specific college athlete — Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, for instance — were directed to a page selling jerseys with that player’s number. It was a tipping point of sorts, and Bilas says it illustrated how blatantly the NCAA is profiting off an unpaid workforce. The NCAA shut down the site, but the incident quickly became a major citation in ongoing litigation the organization faces.
The man who subpoenaed Barney had bigger targets in his sights: NCAA President Mark Emmert, athletic directors and anybody else saying students should be content receiving scholarships.
Bilas argues that change is inevitable. Courts are hearing landmark cases, a few athletes are unionizing and college officials are becoming increasingly antsy as their business model is questioned.
“It’s absolutely agents and trial lawyers that are the whole reason we’re talking about this,” Texas Athletic Director Steve Patterson told Sports Business Daily in June. “You’ve got guys like Jay Bilas out there making the claim that scholarships aren’t worth anything, and nobody says anything to discredit that. . . . They’re just flat-out wrong, and they’re liars.”
Nothing fires Bilas up more than doomsday scenarios, those who claim the sky will fall if student-athletes are paid.
“It’s funny. Nobody ever says that when Nick Saban signs a $50 million contract. We’re not going, ‘Well, there goes the wrestling program.’ It’s only when the player gets something,” Bilas said.
He trots out an analogy for the crowd in Hickory, gifting them each a child actor named Macaulay who has been cast in a movie called “Home Alone.” The movie studios have banded together, he explains, and refuse to pay child actors.
“We’ll give them their expenses, we’ll give child care, we’ll feed them and we’ll give them a tutor so they’re educated. But we’re not giving them any money,” Bilas said from the podium. “I think most parents would probably go, ‘[Forget] that.’ ”
Someone in the Hickory crowd asked the oft-repeated question: So how in the world would this all work?
Bilas laid out his vision: “If you’re a high school prospect here in Hickory and I want to recruit you, I’m going to say, ‘We think you have a chance to be a great player for us. We’re going to offer you a three-year deal, all your scholarship and expenses, plus we’re going to offer you $50,000 a year. In exchange for that, you’re going to sign this contract. There’s going to be a non-compete clause in there, so you cannot go somewhere else and play. You cannot play professional basketball for a year. There’s going to be a behavioral clause in there. . . . There’s going to be academic performance clause in there.’
“It actually would be very simple.”
As college sports have evolved, expenses have kept pace with revenues, he explains. New facilities are built. Coaches are paid more. New resources surface. Schools would have to simply look at their books and rethink their priorities and expenditures.
“It’d really be pretty orderly,” Bilas said. “You’d have some schools that make mistakes. They’d pay too much for a player. They’d actually have to do their homework, and they’d have to put their money where their mouth is. . . . It’s not that big of a deal.”
Just last month Bilas agreed to an extension with ESPN through the 2022-23 men’s college basketball season. Will he stick around that long? Will he be content to critique the NCAA from the sidelines rather than try to get in the middle?
“If we ever change the structure of how college basketball is run,” Krzyzewski said, “I would love for Jay to be a part of the group, the team that runs college basketball. Whether he’d be the guy — well, they haven’t done it. They should’ve done it a long time ago, but they haven’t. He would be great.”
Said Bilas: “If I thought it would help, I would do it. But there’s no way that anybody involved with the NCAA would ever ask me to do that. They know my views — nobody now would do that. They’re so entrenched in their way of doing things.”
In Hickory, Bilas rested his case and thanked his audience. After signing a few autographs, he loosened his tie, took off his jacket and slid behind the wheel for the drive home, another workday finished, inching his way closer to a season of unpredictability.
“The system may be screwed it up,” he says. “It’s not irretrievably broken. It’s easy to fix. It’s easy to make honest.”
More NCAA basketball previews:
Women’s capsule previews: Surveying the D.C. area
National previews: ACC boasts a Mount Rushmore of coaches