Keeping the score under 140
Former Blue Devil Jay Bilas twits the NCAA with tweets to win athletes sweat equity.
By Spencer Campbell
The 50-year-old former business lawyer started the New Year by tweeting: “They say, ‘Oh, he’s so G,’ killed that slow. My swag, my flow, swagger jackers, ya’ll know.” That’s Young Jeezy, one of Jay Bilas’ favorite musicians. Bilas, better known as an ESPN college-basketball analyst, tweets part of a rap song to begin each weekday. On Jan. 7, it was Young Jeezy again: “Takin’ my time, I ain’t in no rush. Man, you know the deal, my money longer than a bus.” Bilas then added, “I gotta go to work,” which he always tags on the end.
The rap references are more than a publicity stunt; he has been a hip-hop fan since the 1980s. But it doesn’t hurt that the music is popular with young men, the demographic that makes Bristol, Conn.-based ESPN Inc. one of the world’s most popular media outlets. Twitter is also a good format for his irreverent, self-deprecating sense of humor. On TV, he can come off as cocky. On Twitter, he pokes fun at that persona. When someone called his arrogance “ugly,” he responded: “Please. My arrogance is more attractive than Giselle Bundchen, airbrushed.” Whatever the reason, @JayBilas has resonated with people. Sports Illustrated included him among sports’ 100 most-essential Twitterers, and the basketball publication Dime Magazine ranked him No. 2 — behind Shaquille O’Neal — among “ballers” on Twitter. Since joining the site around 2011, he has attracted more than 600,000 followers, including Young Jeezy, who gave him a shoutout (“we goin’ to work like Jay Bilas”) in the song “Function.”
Bilas tweets more than rap and self-directed digs. He has used the social medium as a pulpit to launch a contentious campaign against the NCAA and its refusal to let college athletes profit beyond their scholarships. On Nov. 11: “NCAA nails another ‘threat to integrity’: A cross-country runner that ‘raced’ in a recreational fun run.” On Dec. 17, he tweeted, “Cue the NCAA: T-shirts are being sold that exploit a college athlete’s image and likeness. That’s the NCAA’s job.” On Dec. 21, a day after UNC Chapel Hill announced it had shed P.J. Hairston, the basketball player under NCAA investigation for driving rental cars registered to an ex-convict: “NCAA and UNC haven’t forgotten PJ Hairston, still selling his jersey for $75 or $120. Always there for athletes.”
Many bash the NCAA’s rules on amateurism, but Bilas used Twitter to shame the Indianapolis-based organization into subtly admitting hypocrisy in 2013. The NCAA claims not to profit off players’ likenesses. However, when it was investigating reports last August that Texas A&M University quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel sold autographs, Bilas tweeted, “Go to ShopNCAA-sports.com, type in ‘Manziel’ in upper right search box, hit enter. This comes up.” It returned merchandise with his school and number on them. Bilas did the same with University of South Carolina defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney and Clemson University quarterback Tajh Boyd, with similar results. He then tweeted: “Go to ShopNCAAsports.com and type ‘NCAA Executive Committee’ in upper right search box, hit enter. This comes up.” He attached a picture of clowns.
ShopNCAAsports.com responded by disabling its search engine — so no one could look for any merchandise — and the NCAA later announced it would stop selling player jerseys. “The NCAA has been vanquished, taken down by the bulging Twitter muscle and gritty social media might of ESPN’s Jay Bilas,” a writer cooed on BleacherReport.com, which attracts 26 million unique visitors a month.
Bilas got his first taste of show business as a teenager, playing an extra on The White Shadow during high school. The TV show focused on the fictional Carver High School basketball team, and he was surprised to discover the on-set court was tiny. “What you see on television is not what it seems.” Camerawork made it look larger to viewers. He left Palos Verde Peninsula, Calif., to play basketball at Duke University in 1982. His class included Johnny Dawkins and likely saved the job of coach Mike Krzyzewski, who had struggled since arriving in Durham two years earlier. The Blue Devils made the NCAA Tournament three times and made the title game once during Bilas’ four years. This is what most people attribute his ascent as an analyst to — and it definitely helped — but here are other things that didn’t hurt: His mom made him take public-speaking classes when he was a kid. He was the lead in Rolling Hills High School’s production of Watch on the Rhine. A Duke alum and ABC producer got him work at the 1984 summer Olympics pointing out who committed fouls. He played three seasons of pro ball in Europe. During the offseason he returned to California, where he played basketball in ads for Budweiser and Minolta. The commercials led to a part as an alien cop in the sci-fi flick I Come in Peace in 1990. His dad had pushed for law school, citing its versatility. Bilas wasn’t thrilled, but his parents were usually right, so he enrolled in Duke School of Law after his dalliance with Hollywood. He worked on Krzyzewski’s staff while taking classes and, after getting his law degree in 1992, figured he would keep coaching. His future wife disagreed. “Essentially, I wanted her more than I wanted to be a coach.” He went to work for Moore & Van Allen PLLC in Charlotte — where he still lives with Wendy and their two kids — and thought, “This was life.”
When Raleigh-based Capital Broadcasting Co. came calling in 1993, wondering if he wanted to be a radio commentator for Duke basketball, he figured it would keep him near the sport he loved while he continued practicing law. Two years later, ESPN needed a last-minute fill-in for its TV broadcast of a Big South Conference Tournament game between UNC Greensboro and Charleston Southern University. “I thought, ‘This guy, we can work with him. He can improve. He can get where he needs to be,’” says Dave Miller, who recruited Bilas to the network. “Now, truth be told, did I envision him getting where he is now? No.” Where he is now is calling more than 40 games a season and co-hosting studio shows. In December, Sports Illustrated named him Media Person of the Year, gushing that he “is one of the most thoughtful, prepared … voices for any sport.”
He was against using Twitter — he thought it akin to writing on a bathroom wall — until his wife called him a geezer clinging to his rotary phone. “She said, ‘You need to show people that you have more personality, that you’re not just some X’s-and-O’s guy that watches basketball games all day.’” Bilas’ background gives him credibility — and cause — to criticize the NCAA. “Do I think I was worth more than a scholarship? Absolutely.” He’s offended that schools and coaches are free to chase the most-lucrative contracts while players must be satisfied with a free education and by perceptions that college sports could not exist if players were compensated and that athletes act criminally if they accept money. “I actually think it’s immoral. A lie has been perpetrated here, that somehow this entire enterprise teeters upon the athlete being amateur, and I don’t believe that.” Though he says his criticism isn’t personal, Bilas has repeatedly skewered NCAA President Mark Emmert, who has felt the prick. “I dare say I know more about running complex organizations than him, and he knows more about basketball,” Emmert said in December.
“I’ve met Mark. I’ve spent some time with him. He’s a very nice person,” Bilas says. “We differ on NCAA policy.” Or, as he tweeted on Jan. 2, “You ain’t gotta like me, just respect my mind. And, this how I’m eatin’ now, so respect my grind.”