Success of College Athlete Unity illuminates the power of student athletes
In June, two freshman year roommates who remained friends into their senior year started a national social justice organization together.
This scenario might sound like a loose sketch of something directly out of a college’s orientation tour, but it is exactly what senior defensive back Hunter Reynolds and Minnesota senior defensive back Benjamin St. Juste did this summer when they co-founded College Athlete Unity.
St. Juste transferred away from Michigan in 2019, but he and his former roommate and teammate have maintained a close enough friendship that they decided to collaborate in organizing a group of college athletes to advocate for social justice.
“We really felt that, especially in this country, a lot of things are just here one day, out of sight out of mind the next day,” Reynolds said. “We wanted to do something where all of the momentum and all of the conversations and all of the education that people were gaining wasn’t just limited to a few weeks, so we had some conversations about what we could do.
“Then we decided that if we could come up with a national group of college athletes that we could really use our platform that we’ve been granted through our sports. And by combining with other college athletes, we could really amplify our platform to have our message reach a broader audience.”
College Athlete Unity has amassed over 1,000 student-athlete members across the country as of Tuesday. Reynolds himself points out what they have done has made national headlines, but their success makes it even more important to remember the origins of the group.
“You know, I really just saw that there were a lot of injustices,” Reynolds said. “And I didn’t feel like it was necessarily my job to pick up, but having the platform that I had and being who I am and knowing that I can bring intelligent ideas to the table, I just felt that speaking out is something that I needed to do.”
Reynolds and St. Juste felt that they needed to speak up, and because they did, they have spawned a movement that has sparked a lot of conversation about the rights of college athletes and the status of inequity in the United States more generally.
As Reynolds described, College Athlete Unity has amplified their platform and reached a broader audience, and, in doing so, they know they have unlocked the activist potential of college athletes through speaking events like the virtual rally on Sept. 13 and rallies like that which Reynolds helped organize on Aug. 30.
“We have a platform that is usually larger than the average person, which allows us to reach more people, and whenever you can put a message out there and reach a large number of people, that’s always more powerful,” Reynolds said.
College athletes have had the potential to cause great change at least since the advent of social media, but they have long been silenced by those who implore them to instead “shut up and dribble” and “stick to sports.”
To that group of naysayers, Reynolds pays no mind.
“There’s always going to be a segment of people that whenever you’re advocating for the rights of people, they’re going to be so stuck in their ways that they’re going to continue to be ignorant.” Reynolds said. “But you kind of just have to not let those people affect you and realize that you might not change everything in one day, but if you can slowly start to change people’s minds then that’s better than not doing anything at all.”
Those people have ignored, misrepresented, and shouted down the voices of college athletes — and athletes in general — to perpetuate the status quo for years, but their method has proven less and less successful over the course of this status quo-defying year.
According to Reynolds, the realities of a COVID-19-altered semester without in-person classes and with diminished practice time have provided student-athletes with new opportunities to speak out so great that they can be silenced no longer.
“I think having more time on our hands is something that has really allowed college athletes to speak out to a much larger degree,” Reynolds said.
Many college athletes clearly have a passion for speaking out on important issues, and College Athlete Unity is that passion’s brainchild. The group now reaches millions from the platform of its 1,000-plus members, but it spawned from the minds and hearts of just two.