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Mizzou’s Walters: Fighting racial injustice 'can’t stop' with march

Kevin Graeler
kgraeler@columbiatribune.com
Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters on the Tigers' recent protest march: "Our guys, we did something, we voiced our opinion, but it can't stop there. Can't stop there."

Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters was at the center of the Tigers’ peaceful protest against racial injustice June 3 in Columbia.

Athletes and coaches alike marched that day from the Francis Quadrangle to outside the Boone County Courthouse, where demonstrators knelt for 8 minutes, 46 seconds — the length of time a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the neck of African American man George Floyd, killing him. More than 60 of the protesters then registered to vote.

Walters met with the local media this week to discuss the recent march, student-athletes using their voices, what’s different about the current movement compared to the past and turning words into actions.

The following conversation has been slightly edited for clarity and length:

Q: With the current protests and fight against social injustice, what kind of comparison is there to what happened on campus here in 2015, if at all?

Walters: “There is no comparison. It’s a different issue. Different people, circumstances, everything. … Two totally different deals. Nobody has even brought it up or talked about it on our team.”

Q:Across the country and across college football, what do you think the past few weeks will mean for athletes’ student empowerment?

Walters: “I don't know if it's necessarily an athletes’ student empowerment deal as it is everybody's got a voice across the country. And so when there are things that are wrong, people I think now are saying that they have the freedom to voice their opinion. I think that's kind of what you're seeing throughout all sports. You’ve got guys like LeBron James who are major sports figures but they speak out on societal matters, where I think in the past we didn't have as much. You had a few, but you didn't have as much. I think it just kind of gives everyone the sense that it is OK to raise your voice. And I think that's a good thing.”

Q:How often do you and your players have conversations about race and social justice issues, and what do those conversations look like?

Walters: “They’re very organic, very open. I'm fortunate to have a group of guys in my room that, you know, we're pretty close. And so whether it's somebody's going through something personally or a current events topic, we speak pretty freely, pretty candidly about what's going on, identifying problems and trying to find ways to solve them.”

Q:Martez Manuel was one of the players who got the idea to march started. What was your conversation like with him initially? At what point did he come to you or come to the coaches with the idea?

Walters: “I think it was that Sunday night, I talked to him, we had some Zoom meetings with position groups kind of talking about everything that had been going on. We all kind of agreed that we want to do something, and what that looked like was kind of still up in the air, we didn't know. … Myself, coach Drink and the rest of the staff were having discussions and staff meetings about, we need to do something, what does that look like? Who do we get involved? How big is this thing going to be? … Martez and myself talked Tuesday night about wanting to do something, and then I just thought of the idea of getting registered to vote and actually following through with something tangible that you can do that’s not just a demonstration. We brought it up in the staff meeting and obviously coach Drink was more than supportive and as well as the whole staff. Drink was like, shoot, let's just do it today (Wednesday, June 3), let's do it today instead of waiting on things to happen. Let's just go do it today. So we had a team meeting at 1 o'clock. I kind of explained to them what the day was going to look like and the logistics of the march, and at 2 o’clock we all met at the columns and walked through downtown to the city hall. Took a knee for 8 minutes 46 seconds and then got all those guys registered to vote that weren't registered.”

Q:How much pride is there to have a diverse group of coaches in the program?

Walters: “Diversity is huge. But I think what's been particularly special about this moment in time is that you're not just hearing from the Black community. More opinions were being voiced in the staff from the white coaches. You see these protests, you know, it's not just full of Black people, there's a lot of white people out there. I think that's been what's different this time is I think everybody is saying this as a human rights issue and it's not like it was in the past. Obviously we have a long, long way to go. But I just think the tension and the unity within the races is what's being pushed forward, and that's how change happens.”

Q:Can you expand on the idea of how the protests are so powerful, but how taking an action is important as well? Can you describe why you felt registering to vote was an important action for the team?

Walters: “We always talk about, and this comes from Drink, is what you say and what you do has to align, and that's the definition of integrity. And if we are saying that there is an issue and there is a problem, obviously you need to point it out, you need to address it, you need to bring attention to it. But you’ve also got to be part of the change, and to me, the way you have a voice in any matter in terms of what's going on today is you’ve got to register and you’ve got to go vote. That’s your voice. And I think that's a good start.”

Q:What was the energy of the actual walk like and how were some of the conversations you were having?

Walters: “You can sense that it was a powerful deal. We just walked down right right through downtown and cars stopped and people were honking in support of, and it was a moving experience. It was an emotional experience. My grandfather had passed away that morning. So I was going through all kinds of emotions throughout the day. And then when you take a knee for that long, it kind of brings to reality what took place. ... And I think the team, just hearing from them was, you know, coach, man, it feels like we were part of history. Yeah, we are, and 15 years from now when my kids are learning about American history and they get to 2020 and all the things that have already happened, they're going to ask me about it: What was 2020 like, and dad, what did you do? … Our guys, we did something, we voiced our opinion, but it can’t stop there. Can’t stop there.”