Patrick Nelson just had to leave the room.
During an SMU football team meeting amid 2019 fall camp, the staff invited an SMU police officer to speak to the team about its interactions with police and to give an overview of campus safety. The program schedules a similar meeting with the police annually.
At this meeting, though, the officer assigned to speak with the team was fielding questions about unnecessary stops of Black student-athletes.
The Dallas Morning News spoke with 10 players and a current team staff member who were in the room that night. They recounted that the officer suggested if players felt as though they’d be unfairly stopped, they should try to fight back.
The officer also suggested the players could try to run away, given they were likely faster than police, according to those in the meeting.
After hearing those comments, Nelson – a starting safety on the team who would go on to set a single-season record with 12 sacks that season – got up and walked out. Others did as well.
Nelson had grown up in south side of Chicago. Police there had been violent with him during his upbringing, slamming him up against cars and unnecessarily questioning him, he says. Nelson said the officer’s comments last fall revived the trauma of those moments growing up.
“It was anger, it was all of that,” Nelson said. “I really felt like anxiety all throughout my body. I remember walking out. Then I remember looking up. Then I was at my apartment. I kind of blacked out.”
SMU Athletics did not respond to interview requests for head coach Sonny Dykes. It did not respond to specific questions about that night.
An SMU police spokesperson declined to comment on the meeting and declined to provide the name of the officer, citing university policy. The spokesperson noted the officer was no longer with the department.
SMU police chief Jim Walters did provide department instructions on what do when stopped by campus police.
They do not include running away or fighting back, but rather state, “Don’t argue with, run from, interfere with, or resist the police.”
After the police officer’s comments generated anger in the room, Kaz Kazadi, assistant athletic director for human performance, got up to speak and calmed the team down, according to those at the meeting. He told them that in interactions with police, the most important thing is getting home safely.
Many of the players The News spoke with were generally complimentary of how the football staff handled the situation.
Kazadi did not respond to an interview request.
“It was awful,” said Myron Gailliard, a four-year contributor at wide receiver. “And it opened up our coaches’ eyes too, because they didn’t know a lot of this stuff either. They were kind of shocked too.”
Multiple Black athletes The News spoke with described other uncomfortable interactions with SMU police.
Safety Rodney Clemons was a team captain, a four-year starter and is a current member of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. He wore the No. 23 in his senior season to honor Jerry LeVias, the first African-American player on scholarship in the Southwest Conference.
Clemons said he was pulled over for allegedly missing a stop sign during his sophomore year. He had left his student ID at home, but told the officer he was a student at the school. It was late at night. He was wearing a sleeveless, white undershirt. He was driving on campus. But to prove he was a student, he had to show the officer his SMU football biography page on the team website.
“I don’t think that would have happened to some of my white teammates,” Clemons said. “I don’t think that would have happened. It just is what it is.”
According to a statement from Walters, identification is required only if there’s “a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.”
Clemons confirmed what was said at the team meeting by the police officer, but tried to cut him some slack.
“That was definitely the wrong advice to give, to fight the police,” Clemons said, “but he was just saying if you see something wrong, then stand up for yourself. … For people like me, that’s not what you’re supposed to do whatsoever and it can end up bad.”
Others were less forgiving. Running back Ke’Mon Freeman led SMU in rushing touchdowns in 2017 and played in all but two games during his SMU career.
Of SMU police, he said, “the police officers, they’re only worried about the blacks.”
During the team meeting, he said he got up and left shortly after Nelson did.
“After he said that,” Freeman said, “everybody looked around like, ‘Did he really just say that? Did he just try to tell us to run from the police, and we know what they’re doing?’ It was all bad.”
Defensive tackle Zach Abercrumbia said someone asked what they should do if they felt they were at risk of bodily harm at the hands of SMU police and were innocent of the crime they’d been stopped for. That was when, according to Abercrumbia, the officer suggested they could defend themselves physically.
“That isn’t as true for the majority of people in the room he was speaking to,” Abercrumbia said. “If any of us used self-defense, it could be looked as a reason to end our life.”
Freeman said he spoke to Dykes the next day to voice frustration. He said he told him that he was speaking for a lot of guys on the team who didn’t think it was a smart decision to have a police officer speak with the team.
While most players who spoke did not share that criticism of the coaching staff, they all acknowledged that campus police officer’s advice wasn’t something they should follow.
“We really weren’t treated like students that went to SMU,” Chris Biggurs, a five-year member of SMU football, said of student-athletes explaining their perspective in the meeting. “Forget the student-athlete. We just weren’t treated as students.”
Find more SMU stories from The Dallas Morning News here.