Emotional Napier emphasizes support for players, respect for police after marches against brutality
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, August 31, 2020
Three days after about 150 UL student-athletes marched in Lafayette to raise awareness about police brutality and social injustice, Ragin’ Cajuns football coach Billy Napier expressed regret about one part of the day’s events.
The march, organized by the leadership council of UL’s football team, made its way past the Cajundome and through the UL campus before ending at the Lafayette Police Department on University Avenue.
An emotional Napier spoke in a halting voice.
“I think Friday, you know, we found … you know, I think that we did something wrong,” he said. “I thought that we had a great unity walk.
“We got to a point in the walk where we headed in the direction where the police department was. And I didn’t anticipate our team, and they didn’t intend, to stop at that police department.”
But they did.
“I believe firmly in some of the things that we need to get resolved in our country,” Napier, who was one of the marchers, said of the issues the players were protesting. “And I think that some of these issues are extremely important. And I fully support my players on those things.
“But it’s also my job to be their leader. And there’s been probably three or four or five times – I can count ’em on my hand – where I laid my head down at night, and I felt like I failed my team.”
Napier said the walk “came together probably a little quicker than they wanted it to, truth be known.”
“They know that we love them. They know we care for ’em. They know that we have a very specific plan for them as people, as students, as players. And I told our team on Saturday … a couple things. The first thing I told them is that I am very proud that they have a voice and they stand up for the things they believe in.”
But a coach who on Monday seemed to be balancing respect for his players with respect for police also told them about the disappointment
“Everybody wants you to pick a side,” Napier said. “And I pick our players, and I pick our law enforcement.
“I’ve got great respect for ’em, and I know our team and their intentions, and I know their heart. And I hope that that’s authentic. I hope it’s genuine. I hope you see someone who’s owning what I thought was a mistake.
“And it was a mistake on a day where there were lots of great things that happened,” Napier added. “It was a special day, because it did create dialogue. It did create awareness. And there was purpose and great intentions behind it.”
'WE NEED CHANGE'
Cajuns running back T.J. Wisham, a spokesman for those who marched, did not immediately respond to a request for comment, made through a team spokesman, on Napier’s remarks.
A spokesman for the Lafayette Police Department also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Napier spoke at great length, going for more than 12 minutes before fielding his first question.
“I’ve told them; I feel really strongly about this; I think that … we need change,” he said. “I’ve often times found myself angry and frustrated with some injustices, the individual acts – individual acts – of police brutality that continue across our country.
“And we need change, and we need to take action, and we need to continue to talk. We need to strategize. We need to push for equality.
“I also recognize, and feel really strongly ... that the large majority of police officers and law enforcement officials are unbelievable people,” Napier added. “People that sacrifice each day to protect our community.”
Friday’s march came a week after the Lafayette police killing of 31-year-old Trayford Pellerin, who police say had a knife, was tasered and later was shot as he attempted to enter a Shell gas station on Northeast Evangeline Thruway.
It also came as cases of police-involved shootings nationwide continue to be in the national spotlight.
“I’ve got the utmost respect and admiration for law enforcement and the job they do, under a very difficult circumstance,” Napier said. “Their job in our country is more difficult than it’s ever been.
“And I think it’s important for our team to know where we stand. It’s important for our community to know where we stand. And as a football organization, we are so thankful for the environment and our safety that our campus, that the Lafayette police department, provide for us.
“Our unity march was not intended to stop by the police department. That was not what the players discussed at the final hour there,” the Cajuns coach added. “And I think that is by no means a reflection of our view of the men and women in that department.”
Napier dove deeply into all sides of the complicated issues.
“I think it’s OK in our country right now to be able to agree that we have a long way to go when it comes to equality and equity and opportunity – and that there is racism, and that there is social injustice, and that Black people get treated differently than other people at times,” he said.
“But I also think that it’s OK to have a strong and firm opinion about respecting authority and being passionate about caring and being thankful for the law enforcement and what they do." I feel the same way about military.
“And I think I can do both of those. And I think it’s important for me to lead our team in both of those areas. We often times say that it’s job to love our players, but it’s also our job to teach our players,” he added. “And I think this time, and these specific events, present opportunities for both.”
Napier considered Friday’s march a very teachable moment.
“Our players, love ’em,” he said, pointing out that “eight out of the 10 on our team are young African-American males.”
“They have different experiences,” Napier said. “But they also understand that, to me, it’s the same rush to judgement.
“For someone to look at one of our players and see that their skin is black and tell them they’re inferior is the same as seeing the policeman on the corner that has a uniform on and assuming that that guy has bad intentions. And that was the lesson to our players on Saturday."
Napier, still quite emotional, continued to defend his players even as he rebuked the one action.
“I fully accept people that maybe disagree, and are disappointed, that our players were at that police department. I fully agree with that. I have some of the same opinions. But also I agree that the lives of our players, and Black players in particular, matter.
“I’m a coach. I don’t coach to win games. I coach to impact people. I coach to leave a legacy. I get self-gratification from observing players learn, grow, go through struggles, helping them, educate them, understanding that we all are going to stumble at times, understanding that we all are going to make mistakes at times.
“I think the big thing there is I am not going to allow anybody to divide our team, and I think it’s OK for me to disagree. I don’t like a lot of things, but I also have an unbelievable love and passion for our players.”
'PASSION FOR LAW AND ORDER'
That much was abundantly clear Monday.
So too was the fact Napier understands he cannot relate to much of what many of his players face as young Black men.
“I think that any of us, if we sit down and have a significant conversation with people, we would understand that there’s been time in their lives when they’ve been treated a little bit different because of the color of their skin,” he said.
Napier also said he told his team Saturday that “we’ve got to separate the individual events, and we’ve got to understand that the large majority of people in law enforcement are great people."
“They chose a profession where they serve our community each and every day,” he said. “They’ve got passion for people, they’ve got passion for protection, they’ve got passion for law and order.
“They do their job each day, and there’s a chance of, and they’re at risk to, lose their lives doing that.
“So, I think it’s wrong to rush to judgment and associate individual acts with a group of people – no different than some of the things we experienced while we were walking on campus, people driving by, yelling (despicable) things.
“You know, they were white people. And I told the players, ‘Hey does that mean I’m a bad guy? Right? There’s bad people in every industry, every profession. There’s evil, and there’s good. There’s learned behavior, and there’s corrected behavior.’
“And I don’t see it any different. I see it that way on our team, on our staff. I see it that in my family. I see in that way in law enforcement. I see it that way in coaching. Whatever the case may be, that’s my opinion.”
Napier said respecting authority “is a critical piece of what we do in our program, and law enforcement is part of that.”
“It’s our job to help our players work through the issues that they have, so they understand if they get into a difficult situation how to resolve those things,” he said. “So, I have no issues with anything our players did outside of stopping at that police department for 15 or 20 minutes like they did.
“I thought everything else was unbelievable. I thought it was spot-on, I completely agree with (it) and they know that.”