Brian Smoller (BS): Welcome to another edition of Ask the AD, again a socially distanced version of Ask the AD, as we bring you Gene Taylor, the Director of Athletics. I’m Brian Smoller. Thank you for tuning in. I promise we will get to an Ask the AD eventually that has your questions from the fans, but we felt it pertinent to ask a couple of questions today of our Director of Athletics Gene Taylor about the Unity Game and about football in general. Let’s just start there, Gene, because at the outset here, how excited are you to see an actual football game on Saturday?
Gene Taylor (GT): Well, you know it’s funny, I actually watched our baseball team do a scrimmage last week live and was more excited about that. It came down to the last inning. If we had hit a home run, I probably would’ve gone out of my shoes. I’m so proud of our athletes and coaches, not just football, to get to this point. So many ups and downs since March. We started. We stopped. We started again. Their practices are different. We’re certainly excited about football. I’m really looking forward to those players running out of the tunnel on Saturday. It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be football when we kick it off. Really excited about it. Excited for our fans. Excited for everybody who’s going to get a chance to watch it now on Fox. It’s been a long time coming, so really looking forward to it.
BS: There’s been a lot of occurrences over the past six months both on and off the field in preparations for the first game. Of course, a lot of that has focused on the social discussion of racial inequality, Black Lives Matter and those sorts of things. To that end, the announcement of the Unity Game designation for this game and for other sports. We’ll get to that later, but walk us through what this Unity Game designation means.
GT: It’s an effort by a lot of folks. Obviously, the Big 12 has come together and you’re going to see a conference wide support of our Black athletes and Black community members standing up against racism and social injustice. Then our student-athletes have come together, and not just the Black athletes. It’s been a collective effort all summer, and they’ve come up with some really neat ideas to be able to express themselves and be able to express how they feel about being a Black individual, not only in this community, but across the country and as a Black student-athlete. You’re going to see some powerful messages from those student-athletes about what racism means to them and how it affects them, that they want to stand together both Black and White and all races. You’re going to see a wonderful video of a hymn, so to speak, that celebrates the Black lives and the struggles of Black individuals made with some tremendous video of our student-athletes from many, many years back. We’ve had some of the first Black athletes in the Big 12, Big Eight and Big Seven that we can celebrate, so K-State has been aggressive in that. We’re going to have a moment of reflection, where the athletes can either stand together or kneel together to think about how we can stand together against racism. They’ll be wearing some t-shirts with some slogans. I know some things like, « Raise Your Voice » and « Unity », « Stand Together » and « Black Lives Matter ». You’re going to see a lot, and I think you’ll see it throughout the year. This game, in particular, is going to be considered our Unity Game. We hope all of our fans can get behind it and learn from it, as well. »
BS: I think learning is the optimal word there, because it has been a summer and now into the fall, a season at least for me and I know you’ve shared the same sentiment many times publicly of learning and just opening your eyes to things and perspectives and opinions that are not of your own and hearing the stories from student-athletes and people of color, as you mentioned across the board. I should mention, as well, that there will be a logo/decal on the helmets of all football games this year that says « unity », as well, for the Saturday game and beyond the season. Soccer and volleyball will have their own Unity Game designation in a couple of weeks, but as this has unfolded, what’s been the feedback you’ve received from the student-athletes themselves, coaches and staff along with parents, I would imagine, and fans?
GT: It’s been some very difficult conversations and sometimes hard to hear. Sometimes it’s been a challenge. They challenged us as administrators. They’ve challenged us as White individuals to open our ears, listen and understand. It’s hard, many times, to be a Black individual person, whether here in Manhattan or wherever they’re from. Yet, the conversations have been very uplifting, as well. It’s been fun, I think, to see our student-athletes come together to support each other. We had a unity walk a few weeks ago. We didn’t have all of our athletes there, but we had several hundred from all sports. It was very encouraging to see them come together, sit together and walk together, laugh and tell stories. The fans have been great. They’ve been supportive, but there are some who have questioned why we are doing this and what does it mean? As I explained to them, whether in an email or phone conversation or just a conversation, they begin to understand a little bit better, too. It’s about not only supporting our athletes on the field as individuals. We come out and cheer for them, but when they are not on the field, they want that same support and that same encouragement. I think that’s really the message you’re going to hear throughout the weekend.
BS: You mentioned in the release that you’re proud of them for doing this. What has made you most proud of the way they’ve come together and kind of collaborated on this?
GT: I think it’s just watching them mature. At the very beginning when this social unrest started, there was some anger and some frustration. They felt they weren’t supported. Through conversations, watching them go through the process of not only helping themselves grow and learn, but helping us grow and learn and doing it in a very professional and well thought out manner of their approach and their comments and their emotions. Just their maturity throughout the process is what impressed me, and how they just all came together. I have not been in all the conversations, but individual teams have had strong and powerful conversations with each other to get to a point where they understand better about how they need to support one another. That, to me, is what I’ve been most proud of is the maturity throughout the process.
GT: It really is. Growing up and educating and learning from different environments and backgrounds, and to see it unfold on almost a daily basis was really enjoyable.
BS: For fans coming Saturday, this is a quick reminder that it will be different. It will feel a little bit different than a normal football game. There won’t be 50,000-plus in there screaming their heads off and getting ready for football. The measures are there to keep everybody safe. It sounds like everyone has pretty much accepted that this is the way life is in 2020, so as difficult as it may be to get to the stadium in some respects, please take advice as far as the routes to get here. No tailgating, but still hoping to see smiling faces behind masks coming up on Saturday.
GT: It’s certainly going to be different. I’m very pleased with the crowd that is going to be here and be supportive. I’m also proud of the fans that aren’t coming who made wise choices for their own individual reasons, but they’ve continued to support us financially. You can take my tickets and donate them, the revenue or I want to roll them into next year. Those that want to come this year, we’re excited to have you and we’re going to everything we can to keep you safe. We want everyone to come back next year when hopefully we’re back to a more normal opportunity. But, appreciate everyone who is going to be there on Saturday, and we’re going to make sure that it’s a great time.
BS: Ahearnfund.com for more details, by the way, on how to support student-athletes during this time. Obviously, even without football being at full force, we still need to be able to operate and provide that sort of base for these student-athletes to be able to learn and mature and educate, all the things we were just talking about. As we wrap this up, let’s throw in a quick thing about basketball. We’ve spent so much time on football, and rightfully so. That’s understandable during this time of year. A thought about basketball, because there’s been a lot on social media about where hoops is at. Do we have any clarity about basketball?
GT: We don’t yet. We’re getting there. At least the various committees, the basketball oversight committee and management council, are looking at specific dates to start the basketball season, i/e the actual competitive season. They’re looking anywhere from middle November to even late November or even early December. We think that decision will come here in the next week or so in terms of what date actual competition can begin. They’ll back that up in terms of practice. We still have decisions to make as conferences. We have to decide if we’re going to play conference only, a conference only with a few non-conference matchups, do we just go Big 12 vs. Big East for non-conference? So, there’s still a lot of work to do, but I think the first step is determining when we want to start, when we want to start practice and then we can figure out what our competitive season is going to look like. But again, it will be different, but we are at least moving in that direction.
BS: A lot of things to consider, but at least on Saturday for a couple of hours, we can just put those aside, watch the Wildcats and just think about football for a while. Gene, appreciate the time and thanks for the clarity on these issues.
GT: Thanks, Brian. I appreciate it, and look forward to seeing you Saturday. Can hardly wait.
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