JOPLIN, Mo- —
Missouri Southern State University’s football coach placed five players on investigative suspension Tuesday for their alleged involvement in a melee over the weekend outside a downtown Joplin nightclub.
The suspended players are Charles D. Johnson, 20, a redshirt freshman defensive back; Corderial T. Collier, 22, a junior defensive back; Justin C. Cowper, 21, a junior defensive back; Elreo L. Smith, 21, a junior running back; and Abdul R. Dione, 21, a junior offensive lineman.
The five players were among 10 people arrested by Joplin police on misdemeanor charges during what authorities described as a near-riot outside Club 502, 502 S. Joplin Ave., at closing time about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. Cowper and Dione were charged with obstruction. Johnson, Collier and Smith were charged with interfering with arrests.
Police say the fracas began with an assault on Marcel Nelson, 29, of Joplin, outside the club. Cedrick L. Smith, 23, allegedly punched Nelson and knocked him unconscious. Two police officers who witnessed the assault chased Smith down and were attempting to take him into custody when a group of men began encircling the officers and cursing them, according to police.
Johnson was identified in a police report as allegedly being the most aggressive in the group. An officer used a stun gun on him when he refused to back off as ordered, according to the report. An unidentified man then started toward the officer who had used his Taser on Johnson, and the officer pulled out his service weapon to keep him at bay, the report said.
Officers sought backup help as Johnson and Cedrick Smith were being loaded into a jail transport vehicle. At that point, a number of other scuffles broke out among a crowd of about 100 people in the parking lot across the street from the nightclub, police said.
“I’m greatly saddened by any negative publicity the alleged behavior of five or so of our MSSU football players have caused this institution,” coach Bart Tatum said during a news conference Tuesday.
“I do not have all the details from Saturday night, but I’m not waiting for more details to take action. I’ve decided to hand out immediate investigative suspensions of each athlete involved. They’re aware of that.”
He said the players will not be allowed to participate in any football program meetings, workouts or other team activities, with the exceptions of academic study sessions, and meetings with coaches and administrative staff members.
The team wrapped up its spring drills Saturday with an intrasquad scrimmage.
“When appropriate, further action will be taken,” Tatum said. “Final decisions for these young men could include, but are not limited to, reinstatement to the team, removal from the team or any other assortment of disciplinary actions in the middle, including game suspensions next fall.”
The coach said the final disciplinary actions to be taken with each player will not depend on the legal system running its course or court outcomes.
“Our disciplinary action will be separate from anything that comes from the legal community,” he said.
Tatum said he was informed of the arrests by the players themselves. He said he met with Joplin police Tuesday to discuss the matter and plans to meet with them again today.
While Tatum declined to identify the players who were suspended, the Globe confirmed which five players were arrested by police. The coach declined to explain why he referred to “five or so” players in his statement at the news conference. He subsequently said only five are suspended at this point.
Police Chief Lane Roberts on Tuesday defended officers’ response to the situation outside the nightclub.
“I think under the circumstances, the officers showed great restraint,” Roberts said, adding that he does not believe officers are to blame for the initial assault escalating into a melee.
“Our response didn’t lead to the escalation,” Roberts said. “It was the other way around. The escalation led to the additional response.”
Officers from other law enforcement agencies and firefighters were called to the scene when multiple scuffles broke out between club patrons and officers.
Roberts said the department will be reviewing what took place because all uses of force are reviewed internally. No complaints from the public about officer misconduct had been received by Tuesday morning, he said.
“I have great respect for the Joplin Police Department and, fortunately, in my time here, we’ve had very few problems with them,” Tatum said of MSSU student-athletes in general.
He said this incident involved “less than 5 percent” of the football team. He said the vast majority of team members have been model members of the community whose conduct has been “like you want your own children to behave.”
The coach said that before the weekend, the five suspended players had been working hard to maintain good grades and to stay out of trouble. He said he views what happened as “an isolated problem,” which he intends to research in greater detail before deciding the players’ fates. He said it is important to remember that the players involved are young men, and “they’re not going to be perfect.”
The coach said a sense of loyalty to his players demands that he not make “a knee-jerk reaction” to their arrests.
“I want to be very, very sure that I’m giving these guys their due diligence,” he said.
MSSU football coach Bart Tatum said the athletic department’s manual for student-athletes clearly states that problems involving drugs, alcohol or law enforcement “can result in game suspensions or worse.”