Looking for the roughest spot in sports? Head to the Philadelphia Eagles locker room.
On Wednesday, a video surfaced showing Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper, who is white, hurling a racial epithet while attending a Kenny Chesney concert at Lincoln Financial Field in June. “I will jump that fence and fight every n—-r in here, bro,” he said after a confrontation with an African-American security guard. Cooper owned up to his offense. He apologized on Twitter, and while meeting with the press. “I’m disgusted,” Cooper said. “And I’m sorry. That’s not the type of person I am. I wasn’t raised that way. I have a great mom and dad at home. And they’re extremely, extremely disappointed in me. They are disgusted with my actions.” He also met with teammates Wednesday night, and delivered another apology. Cooper admitted he was drinking, but didn’t use that as an excuse. The Eagles fined Cooper an undisclosed amount.
And now his fate is out of his hands, says famed sports sociologist Harry Edwards, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley and long-time consultant for the San Francisco 49ers. Even if his apology is sincere, and this was indeed an isolated incident, “there’s no way for the perpetrator to clean it up,” says Edwards, the former Black Panther whose activism helped inspire John Carlos and Tommie Smith to raise their fists at the 1968 Olympics. “There really isn’t. No matter if you’re talking about the actor from Seinfeld, or Paula Deen, or anyone else, no one who has done that has been able to walk back to the black side of the bridge, and be totally accepted. There’s always someone looking out of the corner of their eye at them.”
Only Cooper’s teammates can clean up his mess. “Somebody in that organization, who is black, needs to stand up and say, ‘look, let’s move on,’” says Edwards. “‘His teammates have to be big enough to say, ‘we choose not to be offended. Because we know and trust this man. Did he make a mistake? Yes. Would we have preferred that he hadn’t gone there? Absolutely. But he did, he’s apologized, we know him, let’s play some football.’”
Cooper did himself no favors. Back in 1997, ex-NFL quarterback Kerry Collins hurled racial slurs at two teammates, but he insisted they were in jest. And they weren’t posted on the internet, for people to see in perpetuity. Cooper went viral, and his comment was far from flip. Any pro athlete would be punished if he were caught saying the n-word. But Cooper did so in the absolute wrong sport. Some 65% of NFL players are black. Cooper spends endless hours hunkered down with his African-American teammates, in confined spaces like the locker room, film rooms, and meeting rooms. If Michael Vick stays healthy and wins the starting job, Cooper — who is expected to fill in for injured Eagles starting wide receiver Jeremy Maclin — will be staring at a black quarterback in the huddle. Wide receivers depend on quarterbacks for their living. No passes, no catches. Offending Vick’s race isn’t wise. (Vick said that after a 15-minute conversation with Cooper Wednesday night, he forgave him).
“Football is the quintessential team sport,” says Edwards. “The guy to your left, the guy to your right can protect you from serious injury. It’s the sport where personal connection, where trust is absolutely vital. You have to look at that guy and say, ‘yeah, that’s the brother that I’m going to down the dark alley with every Sunday.’” Cooper doesn’t just face challenges on his side of the ball. Edwards points out that an overwhelming majority of NFL defensive backs, whose job, by definition, is to pummel Cooper, are African-American. Cooper has given these players even more motivation. (On Twitter, Vick’s brother, Marcus, put a bounty on Riley, offering $1,000 to the “first Free Safety or Strong safety that light his (butt) up! Wake him up please …” Michael Vick distanced himself from his brother’s comments).
Assuming Cooper isn’t a serial racist, Edwards is rooting for reconciliation. “His team needs to step up and choose not to be offended,” says Edwards. “To be perfectly honest with you, that wouldn’t be a bad disposition in the society at large, at every level. Because we’re going to have to work together. We have a great opportunity, not just on behalf of this individual, but on behalf of society and the American people. Let’s move forward.”