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Student-Athletes Making a Difference

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Celebrating the athletic success of the players we root for can't be all we do.

We, from coaches to media to fans and all parties in between, owe it to the student-athletes that make college sports so special to be more aware, more in-tune and more supportive of them, along with their passions and plights, as individuals. Sometimes lost in big crowds and box scores is that these young standouts are people, not just players. They are leaders, difference-makers setting examples both in the classroom and in the community, often using their voices and platforms to represent the masses. Their causes are our causes. 

Celebrating the athletic successeses of the players we root for can't be all we do.

From the day high-profile athletes sign their letters of intent, and often months before, fans and media alike pay special attention to their every quote and statement; topics like which schools are leading in the recruiting process, expectations for the upcoming season, comments on the next game, injury updates and reflections on performance form our year-long talking points. Just because the conversation changes, doesn't mean we should stop listening. Here is where we can learn by paying even more attention.

Each player has a perspective to share.

The tone so many student-athletes have taken in response to racial injustice in America is one of leadership. Players have stood up for what is right, spoken out against what is wrong and, individually and collectively, have helped form and further a much-needed broad national response. As college continues to prepare young people, athletes or not, for the next chapters in their lives, advocacy is an empowering foundation on which to build. Work done now is strengthening society for the future. 

Student-athletes, while achieving academic excellence, athletic acclaim and volunteering directly on and around the campuses where they live, are somehow still finding time to make the world a better place. Their work, months before any football is ever played, is inspiring.

These are role models in action. That deserves our applause.

Countless African-American student-athletes have brought powerful insight to a conversation about race that the United States has long needed to have. Obviously, their voices very much matter; they have formed a resounding statement that is still echoing throughout the hearts and minds of so many. They have helped uplift those in need, also helping to make some think about issues in a new way as well. Life is a learning experience for everybody and it's not always just the teachers offering instruction. Players are making their teammates, coaches and communities better.

From Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond working towards the removal of Confederate statues to Mississippi State running back Kylin Hill saying he will sit out the season unless the state flag changes, athletes are becoming activists for meaningful issues that are important to them and the public at-large. Hill's stance has added to a much needed movement in his state and, thankfully, has helped usher in a new flag in Mississippi. Players, with their words and actions, are now powerful agents of change. They are helping to move the conversation, and the country, forward. Many team-wide developments, public displays to voter registration, have taken place in recent weeks.      

Far more important than any yards gained is progress made. The number of student-athletes contributing to the greater-good is astonishing and is the true often-overlooked legacy of college sports. In these times, those sentiments have proven especially-true. For as much as those of us in the real world seem to think we have it all figured out, players and teams from all across the collegiate landscape continue to offer countless lessons that we should all take to heart. Are we paying attention or just watching, instead?

College athletics is evolving. Even if we don't realize it, we are being positively shaped by that change. Leadership takes on many forms, personal progressions that are remarkable and true. Look past the jersey and think about what it took for that player to get there; look past the stage and think about what it takes for that person to make the most of the opportunity they have earned. Student-athletes are working for the oppressed, the vilified and, one way or another, working for us all. The "amateur" distinction could not be more outdated.    

As we think about a potential return to college football this fall, those on the field aren't just worthy of our applause, they, more importantly, have earned our admiration.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports