For Benjamin St-Juste and more than 1,000 other Big Ten football players, they found their voices by using their words.
After George Floyd died in police custody two months ago, St-Juste — a starting Gophers cornerback who transferred from Michigan — teamed up with some of his former Wolverines teammates to create a group message, inviting athletes of any gender, from any school, conference or division to join.
That safe place for sharing experiences eventually turned into a #BigTenUnited open letter Wednesday demanding from the conference and NCAA greater care for athletes’ well-being during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We just felt like we needed to come together as athletes and talk about more than just football,” St-Juste said, “in order to use our platform to talk about those social injustices, to talk about those racial injustices, come all together and fight for something in common and fight for justice.”
The group chat is now better known as College Athlete Unity (CAU), which St-Juste is co-president of along with Michigan defensive back Hunter Reynolds. And it’s just one example of how this summer has sparked a revolution in college sports, with young athletes speaking out for their rights.
Hundreds of athletes from the Pac-12 Conference were the first to publish a list of demands this past weekend, asking for economic equity, an end to racial injustice and better safety practices for playing during a global pandemic. They threatened to opt out of the 2020 season should their conference ignore them.
Others have already decided not to compete, including star Gophers receiver Rashod Bateman, who will turn his focus to the 2021 NFL draft. Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons, another probable first-round pick like Bateman, is also opting out. Same with Purdue All-America receiver Rondale Moore, Miami (Fla.) defensive end Greg Rousseau and Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley. Michigan State defensive end Jacub Panasiuk, another draft prospect, will redshirt 2020 and finish his senior season in 2021.
Some have taken to social media to share their experiences contracting COVID-19. Louisiana State defensive end Travez Moore said he dropped almost 30 pounds because he lost his appetite and could barely breathe. Arizona receiver Jaden Mitchell was sick for three weeks and lost 14 pounds. The mother of Indiana offensive lineman Brady Feeney wrote about her son’s 14-day ordeal and how the family now worries about long-term effects, including heart problems.
Those lasting consequences scare a lot of parents, including Bryan Green, father of Gophers quarterback Seth Green.
“I’m super, duper nervous,” Bryan Green said. “… There’s so much that we don’t know.”
Benjamin St-Juste’s father, Wilbert, worries the NCAA might push through with a season because of how much money is at stake — the Gophers, for example, stand to lose $75 million without fall sports. He’s worried about not being able to see his son for a long time, should the U.S.-Canadian border remained closed with his son in the Twin Cities while he is in Montreal.
But what has given the fathers of Green and St-Juste some peace of mind is their sons standing up for themselves through CAU.
“It was always about sports and our accomplishment on the field, and never about off the field,” Benjamin St-Juste said. “… All that stuff made us realize that there’s more to the game than just playing and being an athlete. It kind of made us take a couple steps back and realize that there’s more to life. As much as the coronavirus has really been negative since the beginning of 2020, it made us realize and shed a lot more light on those issues.”
St-Juste said CAU has already started working on other projects, such as the recent legislation about name, image, likeness. And while there’s even more CAU wants to tackle, the primary focus remains on trying to safely play the upcoming season.
“I definitely want to play,” St-Jude said. “But that doesn’t mean that the uncertainties and the lack of communication between us, the NCAA and the conference goes away because the schedule came out. … I want to make sure that I will be able to play this season and not get sick.”
And while college football decisionmakers are still waffling about if there will even be a 2020 season, some aren’t afraid to nix it all together.
“I want to make sure everything is OK for Benjamin. And if it’s not OK, he’s not going to play,” Wilbert St-Juste said. “… I’m not going to end up losing my son if anything happens.
“Like I’m always saying to him, ‘Football is not the only thing.’ ”