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Monday, August 5, 2013

The Riley Situation

For those of you who have no interest in daily sports news whatsoever and happened across this blog from random Twitter surfing (@ech1997) or for those of you who have been in a coma since Wednesday morning, a video of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper using a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert was leaked to the media last week. Cooper used the slur reportedly after being denied backstage access by a black security guard. Cooper, who is white, can be seen on a cell phone video saying he would climb “over that fence and fight every nigger” at the concert.

The is not much room for a misunderstanding.

The video went viral almost immediately.  The fallout mushroomed exponentially by the minute. The topic became topic #1 in sports media almost immediately. 

Cooper offered a very contrite apology at a press conference on Wednesday afternoon. He was fined by the Eagles, who said they were sending him to sensitivity counseling. The NFL announced it would take no further action. Riley Cooper was excused from training camp to attend counseling on Friday.

Eagles training camp has been a lonely place of late for Riley Cooper. 1

There is very little that can be said in Cooper’s defense. The word “nigger” is pervasive in the arts, pop culture, and urban vernacular. The word is used very frequently among black people, especially young black men. Every first-hand account and many dramatizations of an NFL locker room that I have heard regarding the word “nigger” includes that word or a derivative of the word (“nigga”) used frequently every day for a multitude of purposes. 

“Nigger” is used by black players as a greeting to a synonym for “buddy” or “pal” to a replacement for the phrase “motherfucker” when expressing displeasure with another person to its original pejorative connotation.  The word is never used in any polite conversation, but has some positive intentions when used as well as negative and ugly intentions. Ultimately, everyone is held accountable for what other people hear them say.

Riley Cooper wasn’t dropping rhymes during a freestyling session. We wasn’t high fiving someone while exclaiming, “My nigga!” He wasn’t referring to himself. Riley Cooper was intoxicated and angry with a black man who would not let him have his way and, in response, expressed that anger with an expression of violence which included the word “nigger” rolling off of his tongue the way sweat rolls off of a farm hand’s forehead in August. 

His words were violent. His words were filled with vitriol. His words were ugly. His words were offensive without mitigation.
You never know what is in someone's head or heart, but I think that his mea culpa was sincere.


In spite of his tough talk, Riley Cooper did not hop over any fences. He did not beat anyone up. As far as I am aware, he did not make trouble for anyone else at the concert. He was not videoed launching into any more any tirades. He wasn’t arrested. He wasn’t asked to leave the performance.

By all accounts, Cooper’s interactions prior to this incident with other teammates, black or otherwise, were of the positive, bonding experiences one would expect among professional athletes. He was as involved in the Philadelphia community as much as any other Eagles player, as I understand. Not only does Riley Cooper have no prior record of creating racial animosity, from was I can gather he was a good teammate and a good representative, like most players, of the National Football League. 


If not for modern technology, there would be no story. However, the Internet has been available to consumers for 20 years. Video cameras have been ubiquitous in cell phones for at least the last five years. The majority of American adults have Facebook accounts. There are close to a billion Twitter users in the world.

If you are a public figure, it should come as no surprise that you are not only being observed by someone every minute of every second of every day, but there is a high probability that you are being documented, including by use of audio/video media. Riley Cooper has walked into a room hundreds of times, going back to when he was playing football at the University of Florida, and people in the room have known who he was and that he was there. This is not new to Cooper.

In spite of the aforementioned, Cooper neglected to exhibit self-control. He was angry. He verbally lashed out in the most malicious and incendiary manner possible, targeting race. He isn't a victim and, having seen the video, I cannot even give him the benefit of the doubt of suggesting that he let out a Freudian slip. This is not lost on his teammates.

Simply put: Riley Cooper allowed the world to see his verbal interactions with another human being, using an entire race of people to single that person out, in one of the worst manners imaginable. He did nothing to distance himself from his vulgar and hurtful behavior until after he was caught, not even the cat-ate-the-canary look that people have when they realize, right away, they say something they immediately regret.

Nobody wants to be tied to bigotry. Nobody in their right mind would want to be associated with hatred towards black people in an occupation in which 70% of his peers are black and that job legally encourages opponents to hit you as hard as possible. 2

We've all done stupid things. We've all said things that we profoundly regret. We all have biases, good, bad, or otherwise, based on ethnicity, gender, appearance, and mannerisms. We all have to own them and be accountable for those things. 

Unfortunately for Riley Cooper and the Eagles, Cooper opened the door of race in America when he reached a behavioral nadir at the concert. He was seen doing it on video. His anger triggered unvarnished racial hostility for the world to see. It isn't like farting in church. 

Quarterback Michael Vick, a 33-year-old, 11 year NFL veteran who is black, attempted to mitigate the fallout and stand up for Cooper. It is what a team leader is supposed to do. Vick said he knew the kind of man Cooper is, the “real” Riley Cooper, and that he forgave him. He said the team was ready to move forward. A day later, Vick said he tried, but that internal tension wasn't simmering down. 

Running back LeSean McCoy gave a very measured, reasonable, cool-headed opinion in which he said that they will work with him and aid Cooper as a teammate, but his friendship and respect for Cooper has changed for the worse. Multiple reports surfaced saying that Cooper was excused, asked to leave training camp on Friday to attend counseling due to the tension that situation caused.

Cooper is lucky that he has talent. Like other talented people in our society, his talent is buying him some currency. If Cooper were a fourth or fifth receiver with limited special teams value battling a rookie out for a low roster spot, he would be cut. But the Eagles need Cooper. In light of Jeremy Maclin's season ending knee injury, Cooper was/is expected to be in the starting lineup this season.

On the field, his team needs him. For that reason, he will probably have an opportunity to redeem himself among his Eagles colleagues. That is fortunate because, in light of this flap, no other team would invite Cooper and his inevitable attached distractions into camp.

He is...the most OSTRACIZED EAGLE in the WORLD! 3

This is yet another high profile incident in American current events in which race is key issue; in this case it is the central issue. The Riley Cooper situation has awaken discussion about the word, "nigger," and the perspectives on race, racism, and race relations. From my vantage point, I have heard the same old stale talking points from all points of view.

What is inescapable, however, is the Riley Cooper allowed the world to see how he behaved in a contentious situation with a black man when (I sincerely hope) he thought nobody was watching. His black teammates have every right to ask, "What does he think about me? What does he think about my family? What does he think about my friends and people who look like me?". His other teammates have a right to ask similar questions, such as, "How would he treat me if I looked different...didn't look more like him?" Football fans, writers, and stakeholders have the right to ask the same.

The supply on the Internet seems almost infinite. 5

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