When video surfaced of Philadelphia Eagles third-string wide receiver Riley Cooper at a concert angrily hurling the N-word at a Black security guard and threatening to fight, I was shocked. Obviously I know that racists come in all forms and are represented in every profession on the planet. But something about the effortless way the WR I’ve spent the last couple seasons rooting for uttered that slur was jarring. He said it with all the rage and experience of a veteran racist, including the requisite venom in those critical last two letters, e-r.
Within hours of the video surfacing, Cooper had apologized on his Twitter page and held a press conference at NovaCare, the Eagles practice facility, in front of a rabid Philadelphia sports press corp. In his remarks, Cooper said he was ashamed, his parents were disgusted with him, and that it was his first time saying the word. Besides the fact that the last part rang untrue for me, I admit there wasn’t really anything Cooper could say to satisfy me. My attention was focused on his Black teammates and how they feel now knowing they’ve worked and shared meals and showers with someone whose actions indicate a lack of respect for them.
Michael Vick, the team’s quarterback, spoke on behalf of the team. Vick was eloquent in his statements and showed the kind of vocal leadership he’s become known for since he signed with Philadelphia. Vick stated that he talked with Cooper and has forgiven him. Vick cited his own mistakes as evidence of why Cooper deserves forgiveness and said moving on from this would be a sign of “maturity.”
I expected a reaction rooted in forgiveness and a desire to move on, but I’m still disappointed by it. Certainly Vick is entitled to his own personal feelings and reactions (as is the rest of the team), but I question whether those feelings are genuine or pre-conditioned. In situations like this, Blacks have been conditioned from birth to suppress their real feelings for the sake of some ambiguous greater good and sense of biblical responsibility. Plus, professional athletes understand that there’s an unwritten rule to never make any public comment that might be divisive. Vick essentially had little choice but to toe the party line and set the expected tone for a group of men who respect his opinion more than any other teammate.
Some fans tweeted that Vick’s reaction and the way the team has handled it thus far (with a fine rather than a suspension) is good for Cooper and the team. I suppose it’s easy to argue that the former is true, but the latter is a different story. Asking Cooper’s Black teammates to work alongside him without any license to publicly express anger about what they saw in that awful video is wrong. Granted, public discord would qualify as a dreaded “distraction” for the team. But what’s more distracting than working alongside Cooper knowing what they know?
The NFL is working to become a more openly tolerant league. And strides have been made to let players know that when and if a player decides to be open about his homosexuality, he should be accepted without any problems from fellow players. The bar for tolerance shouldn’t be lowered just because Cooper offended a group of players that happen to be the majority.
Cooper deserves to spend some time on sidelines so that he understands the gravity of his behavior and so his teammates know the team and entire league protects their right to respect. A fine is a good first step, but it’s not enough.
Jessica Danielle is a professional speechwriter and blogger who covers sports with wit and ardor at Playerperspective.com.