EDINBURG — After several months were derailed in some form or fashion by the COVID-19 pandemic and instances of racial injustice across America, UTRGV Athletic Department personnel and student-athletes are continuing to foster difficult discussions on these timely topics in an effort to unite the campus and local communities by rallying the Rio Grande Valley.

Vaqueros athletic department officials, coaches and student-athletes representing each of its male and female athletic programs — who originally began these discussions following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May — have taken their mission up a notch.

Now, in addition to pledging to continue having these campus conversations, UTRGV athletics will begin implementing concrete actions to show the group’s message to its fans, campus communities and rival collegiate athletic teams: “We are all on one team UTRGV.”

“Obviously we don’t have people on campus, but we did work over the summer specifically with WAC (Western Athletic Conference) SAAC (Student-Athlete Advisory Committee) on the conference level and UTRGV over things that we want to do,” said Rachel Yu, a redshirt senior from San Antonio on the Vaqueros’ women’s golf squad and the president of the UTRGV Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

“In terms of conversations that I’ve had with other student-athletes, it just feels like we’re all getting on the same page, so even though it’s not like on campus in terms of the feeling amongst athletic department people I’ve talked to, it feels like we’re moving in the right direction in terms of getting ourselves organized and figuring out exactly what we want to see.”

“I think it goes back even to our conversations that we were having from a staff perspective with myself, coach (Lew) Hill and coach (Darren) Flowers really just putting a stake in the ground saying, ‘Not only are we going to have this conversation today, but we’re going to continue the conversation and prepare for our student-athletes return,’” UTRGV Vice President and Athletic Director Chasse Conque said as part of a roundtable discussion with The Monitor and UTRGV coaches and student-athletes.

Chasse Conque is presented as the new athletic director of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s athletic department in a press conference at the UTRGV’s Visitor’s Center on Tuesday, Aug 27, 2019, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“We didn’t want to wait. We didn’t want to wait until the end of August or the middle of August to really start getting the wheels spinning and the ball moving, so we’ve had a lot of conversations on campus here with a lot of other campus administrators. We’ve done some things with Student Affairs, we’ve hosted a couple of roundtables. (University) President Dr. (Guy) Bailey hosted a roundtable with members of the Black student union and several of our student-athletes.”

Student-athletes, coaches and university leaders at UTRGV met together last weekend to discuss specific, concrete actions the group will take to advance their message in the community and improve campus relations for all parties involved.

They’re seeking to maximize the use of their platform to encourage positive change and promote more understanding among various groups.

“We know we’ve got a platform here in the department of athletics and that’s definitely been noticed and documented over the past couple of months,” Conque said. “Again, we’re not putting a time limit or timetable on this. This is something we’re all passionate about.”

“The biggest thing is that Chasse (Conque) has kept it going and whenever he needs me he asks me to come in,” said Hill, the UTRGV men’s basketball coach who helped spark these initial campus conversations. “I’m always conversing with my team, but I haven’t been around other teams, per se, to join in that conversation. That’s where Chasse has been really instrumental. He’s doing a great job.”

Coaches, student-athletes and UTRGV athletics jointly decided to adopt several new measures revolving around inclusivity and understanding.

The Vaqueros started a new concept that they’ve branded “the healing circle,” where student-athletes, coaches, staff and the campus community of all backgrounds gather to share their experiences and thoughts to foster mutual understanding.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley head men’s basketball coach Lew Hill gives instructions against California Baptist during a Western Athletic Conference game at the UTRGV Fieldhouse on Saturday, Mar. 7, 2020, in Edinburg. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“For me, one big thing that I feel like has been great coming out of this is helping us with better understanding, and I think once we get a better understanding, then we can start to move toward change,” said Jamal Gaines, UTRGV’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee Vice President and a senior forward on the Vaqueros basketball squad. “But the first step is that better understanding, so to me, it’s been a great thing that’s come out of these conversations.”

“Sometimes just listening to different groups of people from different ethnic groups (and backgrounds) helps you understand what they’re thinking, and then you can talk to them and express how you feel,” Hill said. “I think the more we can continuously communicate with each other and grow together, I can’t say it solves the problem, but it helps the problem.”

The biggest development in UTRGV’s crusade for unity and positive change, however, is a brand new take on a long-time sports tradition.

Representatives from all of the Vaqueros’ athletic programs have agreed to wear a patch on all their jerseys and equipment for the entire academic year to signify their solidarity as one campus community and one team UTRGV.

“We’re playing around with the idea of what exactly our patch is going to be, but it’s just to say that we’re in this together. That’s something that we can make personalized, it can be our own and we can share that with other student-athletes,” Yu said. “We’re going to start with our student-athletes, but that’s something that we want to share with the rest of the campus, and then from that, we can share with the rest of the Valley. Then we can make our change happen that way.”

Conque, Gaines, Hill, and Yu said that the racial justice movement started at the professional sports level in leagues like the NBA, WNBA and MLB encouraged them to come together at UTRGV and find a way to spread their message, too.

“We’ve got 350 people in our organization, and by that, I mean just the athletics department and we want it to start with us. We want to make sure that the conversations, the platforms, the dialogue and the education are all happening in a meaningful way with us,” Conque said. “We’re confident enough in our platform and the role that we can play at this institution and in this community that there will be a ripple effect and we look forward to that.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch