No. 9 BYU’s players always believed they were going to have a great team this season, but football wasn’t foremost in their minds when team leaders called a players-only meeting one day this summer on the Provo, Utah, campus.
George Floyd was dead. A pandemic had killed hundreds of thousands worldwide. American politics were divided.
“We just wanted to get together here at the facilities and just kind of talk about how we were feeling, let players express their feelings, their emotions,” said co-captain Troy Warner, a senior defensive back.
Black players, Polynesian players and white players took turns. They had seen NBA players wearing social justice messages on their uniforms. WNBA players were wearing the names of Black victims of violence.
The BYU players decided they wanted to send a message, too, one they hoped would be visible to the millions expected to watch broadcasts of their games over the course of the season, like their showdown tonight with No. 21 Boise State on FS1.
“We had an open forum about what we thought should be the message,” junior wide receiver Dax Milne said. “We really tried hard to make it a message that was not controversial at all, and someone mentioned ‘love one another,’” a teaching of Jesus Christ that resonates deeply with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which owns and operates BYU.
The team unveiled T-shirts that said “We Are One” on the front and “Love One Another” on the back for their Sept. 7 opener against Navy. Since then, they’ve learned about sales, trademarks and licensing and leveraged their message to provide funding for scholarships to multicultural students.
That message is that everyone should love one another “regardless of their skin color, culture or background,” Warner, who is Black, said in a video with other team members.
“We’ve chosen to love, and that unites us,” added co-captain Isaiah Kaufusi, a senior linebacker with Tongan roots.
Three months later, BYU remains undefeated, ranked in the top 10 and continues to share its Biblical message of hope and healing as the team prepares for its biggest game of the year. Win or lose, the message stands.
ESPN sideline reporter Stormy Buonantony has covered four BYU games this year and said she has been impressed by the players’ maturity. She said Warner told her the team knew it would have a lot of eyeballs on it and wanted the nation to know the players were striving for change, solutions and equality.
“We’ve had cameras every single game get shots of those shirts they wear pregame, and it’s a good way they spread that message,” she said.
Best of all, the message has resonated, though the shirts were a well-kept secret at first.
“We were unaware that they had had those shirts designed and, of course, being a retailer, the moment that we saw them run out onto the field wearing those shirts we were like, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, everybody’s going to want those’,” said Mark Clegg, director of the BYU Store.
Warner and Kaufusi met with Clegg a week later. They found out that a company had trademarked “We are one,” so university licensing special Adam Parker set out to strike a licensing deal.
Then Warner and Kaufusi asked whether some of the proceeds could go to minority students. Clegg offered 100% of the profits, which have become substantial.
The initial batch of 5,000 shirts, which sell for $19.99 online at BYUStore.com, sold out in two days. About 60% of a final batch of 3,000 shirts have sold, too, Clegg said. The profits will run into the tens of thousands of dollars and will fund multicultural scholarships.
The players could have asked for more equipment or something else for themselves, said Moises Aguirre, director of Multicultural Student Services, which serves a lot of first-generation college students and others with extenuating circumstances.
“My heart filled with gratitude and with with joy to just see these acts of kindness,” he said. “We are in a time right now that we need more of those acts of kindness, we need to love one another, and the more that we can demonstrate that and look for opportunities. I think the better off we’re gonna be as a BYU community and as human beings in general.”
Latter-day Saints revere the Bible as the word of God. Christ’s new commandment to love in John 13 are the subject of a church hymn, “Love One Another,” and a Primary song for children, “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus”:
Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.
“That’s definitely a big part of our church, to love one another,” said Warner’s mother, Laura.
“We are one,” said co-captain James Empey, a junior offensive lineman. “We are one people, and the best thing to do is what our Savior taught us to do, which is to love one another, and that’s how we should treat each other.”
BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said the message, the shirts and the scholarships have had a real impact on the team and beyond.
“You know, we’re a religious-based institution and team, and so our players know what they represent here, on and off the field. We’re not perfect, but loving one another doesn’t take that much effort, it just takes some focus,” he said. “It goes in line with what we’re trying to do as a football program. It goes in line with our church, with our school and the mission of this program, so it all makes sense. You know, we’re promoting the words of Christ, and it’s really nice to unite around that.”
Sitake said he is proud of his players for playing with sportsmanship, too.
“I think there’s a way that you can play this game, which is a physically violent game, but have a good sense to it. I’ve seen it when I played for LaVell Edwards and I’m really proud of the way our guys have played this year so far.”
Others have noticed the mix of good play and sportsmanship during BYU’s start, including UTSA head coach Jeff Traylor, whose team gave the Cougars they’re toughest test so far, losing, 27-20.
“Their kids play the game the right way,” Traylor told The Athletic. “They’re a team everybody should be rooting for. They do it right.”
ESPN’s Buonantony said Warner told her he’s grateful that people have taken the team’s message the way they wanted it to be received.
“We pride ourselves on being a family here, and when one person or when a few people feel a certain way, we like to talk about it,” Warner said this week. “We wanted to send a message about the way that we want to live life and encourage others to do so as well, and that’s to have equality and to live very Christlike. What would he do? That’s love one another. That’s to be united as one.
“In any way that we can, we try to make a difference and to make a change and that’s one reason why I love BYU.”
Empey, who served a two-year church mission in Portugal, said he was glad his teammates were mature enough to talk about love in a football setting.
“I’m grateful to be a part of a team that is diverse and has a lot of different people from different places who can all come and play together and be brothers, you know what I mean?”