New national group of college athletes aims to use 'voice for positive,' enact social change

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Hunter Reynolds knew he wanted to do something big, something that will move people and create positive change, a legacy that would continue long after his time at Michigan.

He texted his friend Benjamin St-Juste, a former Michigan football teammate who is now playing at Minnesota, and together they began to hatch a plan.

“A couple days go by, we’re throwing ideas back and forth,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds, who is part of the recently created Big Ten Anti-Hate and Anti-Racism Coalition that has representatives from every conference member, had been thinking a lot about his role in society during the days and weeks since the death of George Floyd on May 25 sparked protests across the country and jump-started conversations about racial inequality.

Hunter Reynolds (27)

He is a college student and a football player with a platform. Why not springboard that into social change?

“I was thinking about different things, different ways because things in America are trends. I was trying to think how I could keep the Black Lives Matter movement something that isn’t here today and leaves the public image tomorrow,” Reynolds said in an interview with The Detroit News. “I was in a couple group chats, and said, ‘What should we do this season to make sure the message is honed in on and ingrained in people even when we’re six months out from this?’”

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In those early planning group texts were Michigan players Kwity Paye, Luiji Vilain, Phillip Paea, Jordan Anthony and Donovan Jeter as well as St-Juste and former Wolverine J’Marick Woods, now at Duke.

From there, College Athlete Unity (CAU) was born on social media to give student-athletes across the country a platform for peaceful protest. The group is using Twitter (@cau4justice) and Instagram (@collegeathleteunity_) to share with the public their thoughts and concerns and to keep alive the conversation about racial injustice that is so important to them.

“We’ve been getting great feedback so far,” Reynolds said. “A lot of the people we’ve reached out to throughout different sports have agreed this is something that is long overdue. It’s something that is the right thing to do that people can rally behind.

“At the end of the day, some student-athletes have 100,000 followers, some have 50,000 followers. If you can promote a message of positivity to those 100,000 people and someone in a different area of the country can promote their message to 50,000 people, you’re reaching hundreds of thousands of people through social media, not to mention through sporting events when those start back up. People are promoting their message in the right way, in a positive way, and then we’re positively impacting millions of people.”

The group’s first post is a moving video that opens with scenes of police brutality against African Americans before Reynolds appears, speaks of needing change and that the time is now to bring awareness to racial injustice. He is followed by a number of student-athletes from different schools who pound this theme — respect them as more than just college athletes.

“Our plan is to use our platform to peacefully protest, to raise awareness,” Reynolds said. “We definitely feel like we’ve been getting good traction so far, especially with the nature of what we’re doing. People are excited to be part of something that is bigger than themselves. You hear your friends say, ‘I’m part of this group where our goal is to enact social change in America,’ and you’re like, ‘I want to join that, too.’ You join the group and repost something on Instagram and five of your teammates (direct message) you and ask, ‘What is this? What’s it about?’ It spreads that way. People want to be part of something that is positive.”

The CAU numbers are increasing each day and members have been meeting once a week on Zoom calls. The ever-expanding group text continues to fill up daily. Each week CAU highlights a student-athlete and his or her achievements on and off the field.

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“I’m very encouraged, and I’m really proud of those guys,” Michigan offensive coordinator Josh Gattis said. “Those guys are leaders. They’re leaders of change. They’ve created a platform for them to use their voices. They have the next generation growing up that’s looking up to them. You’ve got a 4-year-old or a 5-year-old (child) and they’re looking at their favorite athlete is Hunter Reynolds or whoever it may be and they’re seeing that person using their voice for positive. That’s going to create change in that young child.”

Paye believes the organization could become a powerful voice for social issues because of the breadth of college athletics. CAU includes all sports and every division of athletics.

“We have the potential to make this very big, and we’re going to keep working on it,” Paye said. “We’re going to grow this as much as we can.”

In the first CAU video, it is clear student-athletes want their voices on social issues as respected as their athletic ability. Playing a sport in college is part of who they are, they said, but not their identity.

They are not immune to negative reaction to their decisions to speak up on national issues that can be divisive. But Paye believes it is time people take them seriously and acknowledge they are more than just athletes.

“If you’re not going to support us through our real-life situation, we live through this stuff every day, and I feel like it’s messed up that some fans only want us to just shut up and just play football,” Paye said. “When we take the helmet off, we’re in the real world and we have to experience all this stuff.”

Reynolds said he always supported former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem. He believes the public’s perception and reception have changed, and that’s why he believes CAU will succeed.

“If people tell you this isn’t the best time for a coalition, this isn’t the best time to protest, this isn’t the best to make a difference, you have to ask, when is the best time? When is the right time?” Reynolds said. “I know there are people in a worse situation than me and they don’t necessarily have the means or the ability or the platform to speak up, so if I can speak up and help even a few people out, it’s all worthwhile.”

Their hope is CAU will be around for a long, long time so that college athletes can always have a platform.

“The reason why Hunter wanted to do this, after we leave and after we’re done with college football and college athletics, the organization can still be around where other athletes can join and continue it,” Paye said. “Some people are hoping this blows over. But with the organization Hunter has, this will keep our message alive and have our following grow even more.”

Reynolds is pleased that he and St-Juste have seen their idea become a reality.

“We knew it was something that needs to be done and did it of our own volition,” Reynolds said. “Naturally, I’m a pretty neutral person — I don’t let the highs get me too high or the lows get me too low. This is definitely something I’m passionate about, that I’m happy to be a part of, and I’m excited. I can’t wait to see where this goes and just the different ways we can make a difference.”

Twitter: @chengelis