“I will jump that fence and fight every ******, here.”
There is no foreign fuel that conjured Riley Cooper’s words at that Kenny Chesney concert this summer. It wasn’t the warm air. It wasn’t the country music. It wasn’t the alcohol, or the anger, the adrenaline. Tongues can be loosened by such an atmosphere. But ignorance is only released from hearts that contain it.
And clearly, Riley Cooper’s heart contained some hatred that his teammates found hard to swallow. Which makes sense, for Cooper himself couldn’t keep it from spewing forth from his mouth.
Initially a headline, the story quickly lost steam amidst the narratives of an impending NFL season. Fans, writers, and television executives were more concerned with RGIII’s knee, Rex Ryan’s circus sideshow, and Aaron Rodgers’ ego. And soon, the author of the slur became but another cog in Chip Kelly’s shiny new machine, and slowly, but surely, just as the NFL intended, we forgot.
But the players on the field –they didn’t forget.
That rose to the surface Thursday when reports rose from Philadelphia that a skirmish had occurred at the Eagles’ practice facility. Cornerback Cary Williams and Riley Cooper had to be separated after a scuffle became more serious. It was a reminder that this sure as hell won’t be the last time that a line, that an invisible barrier, separates Cooper from an opponent well after the whistle falls silent.
This isn’t going away.
This started on July 31st, when video surfaced of Riley Cooper’s angry use of the n-word, a context and a single sentence that shattered the rapport he had once shared with his teammates. It wasn’t just the word. It was the way he used –the vitriol, the context, the way it slid so easily from his lips as if he’d said it hundreds of times before. That’s what hurts. Not the word, but the nastiness behind it.
It effected Cary Williams from the start.
In August, Williams told reporters, “Obviously the magnitude of the issue makes it a lot harder to cope with.” And it was obvious Williams wasn’t alone. “We’re trying to find a way to forgive,” he said. “We’re having a tough time. We’re at a crossroads.”
The league has stood in that crossroads for some time. And traffic is stalled –it moves slowly, it stops, it waits for the fog to clear before it inches forward.
It’s a league comprised of a diverse player base. According to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport’s 2010 report, 67% of all NFL players at the time were black. Considering that only 51 years ago the last team (Washington) integrated their locker room, that number can’t be ignored for its significance.
But others are more troubling. All 32 majority owners are old, white men. Coaches of color still struggle to break the barrier. And these mostly white men are those deciding to what degree they’ll protect the bodies and minds of their mostly black players. The NFL constantly fights this balance –a conservative approach to change, and yet, a desire to promote diversity.
In the case of Riley Cooper, they had a chance to take a stand. They failed.
After the Philadelphia Eagles swiftly fined Cooper for his comments, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell declined to punish him further. On ESPN Radio’s Mike and Mike in the Morning, he said, “We do not penalize at the club level for the same incident.” And he left it at that.
I don’t buy it. If that’s true, it’s a dangerous precedent. I find it hard to believe that if a player showed up to an NFL game drunk and made lewd gestures on national television, then his team quickly stepped in and punished him the equivalent of sitting in a corner and thinking about what he did, that the NFL would say, “Well, the team beat us to the punch, so our hands are tied.” Of course Goodell would give out a harsher punishment. He’d protect the shield.
That’s what he always does. He protects the shield. And that’s what he was doing when he decided to fall short in the Riley Cooper incident. A strong stance might’ve meant alienating a majority-white NFL fan base. A strong stance might’ve meant raising questions and issues of race that would hurt the bottom line. So Goodell protected the shield.
He didn’t protect his players. And he didn’t protect Riley Cooper from himself.
Less money in Cooper’s pocket will not ease the pain he caused. Not in his own locker room, and not in the hearts and minds of black players across the league. When he threatened to jump that fence and fight “every ********* in the vicinity, he crossed a much different line. He elicited an ugly history, a reminder that sometimes we take steps forward, and yet, don’t get too far at all. He made a threat that he can’t back up.
Here’s the reality. When Cooper lines up on Sundays this season, 98% of the cornerbacks he faces will be black. When Cooper tries to go deep, he will cross into the territories of safeties –84% of safeties in the league are black. And when Cooper goes over the middle, 71% of the linebackers waiting to dislodge his body from the ball will be men of color.
This is a fence Cooper can’t climb. He can’t fight all of them.
And the Williams incident at Thursday’s practice points to an anger that, justifiably so, pulses through the veins of players that would have called Cooper a comrade or teammate. It’s fitting that after Cooper and Williams were pulled apart, the embattled wide receiver reportedly separated himself from the team. He stood alone, isolated, self-imposing the segregation that his words caught-on-tape caused.
No matter how much the story is swept under the rug, it won’t be forgotten on the field. That word, that ugly word, hands on the air, spiraling out of control like an errant pass from Michael Vick. Only Cooper can’t catch it. He can’t hide from it. He can’t escape to the sidelines, out of play, out of bounds. No matter which path he chooses, this won’t be the game he loves. For the majority of the game’s participants know he doesn’t love them back. Not yet.
Cooper’s own quarterback is proof that forgiveness can come to the most egregious inhumanities. Michael Vick’s history of dogfighting and heinous cruelty threatened to end his career, to shatter his perception forever. But something happened. He transformed. Cooper can learn from that transformation.
The biggest lesson: forgiveness takes time. And in today’s Twitter age, it never comes with forgetfulness.
Forgiveness requires time. It requires action. Apologies and fines aren’t enough to ease pain caused. Vick learned that. He did his time in prison. He became a part of the community. He spoke to children about his faults, he advocated against animal cruelty. Eventually, he earned a chance in America, a land of second chances.
Cooper has yet to take the action necessary to heal this wound. It isn’t enough to be sorry (months later, when you’re caught with your pants down, your sleeves cut off, and your mouth open.) It isn’t enough to lose money. It isn’t enough to seek a few day’s counseling, then to play quietly through the storm you know is coming. The NFL isn’t stepping in, so Cooper has to step up.
No; Cooper has two choices of action. On one hand, he can face this dangerous season, when every defender will understandably hunt his head, and take the hard hits, the shoves. And take them in silence. None of them will hurt as much as he hurt his teammates. And perhaps then, over much time, he can rally with this team, and become, somehow, a band of brothers.
If that seems impossible, Cooper can choose to realize that on that summer night, at that Kenny Chesney concert, he started, and he continued, an age-old fight that in 2013 can’t be won. Once upon a time, that word, that hatred could be spewed without consequence. Today, that shouldn’t be the case. And if it is, the NFL, and America, has yet to rid itself of its plague of prejudice.
So maybe Cooper should take the break Goodell wouldn’t force upon him. Perhaps he should stay behind that fence, and soul-search, and embrace a community he’s alienated. If he professes to love Philadelphia, he has to learn to love everyone within its inner city streets.
They say winning heals all wounds. I hope that isn’t true. I hope that a successful Eagles season will not silence this conversation. I hope that Riley Cooper is still sorry, that Cary Williams is still hurt, no matter the number in the win column.
And I hope that because of this:
The N-word entered the American landscape as a way of creating a subhuman category. Of rendering this population that arrived on ships, in shackles into something less than their lighter counterparts. I suppose that made it easier to treat them like beasts of burden.
Years and years later, a league exists, the most popular sport in the world, and two-thirds of its participants are black. They are the heroes of white and black children alike. They are millionaires. They are equals. Or so we’d like to think.
But history lingers. And Cooper’s actions proved that the word hasn’t lost its meaning –that sometimes, in the summer air, it can be used as a way to separate one group from another –a literal and metaphorical fence between them.
Meanwhile, these gladiators sacrifice their bodies and minds, while white owners make much more money than they’ll ever see. And with that fact you wonder –how far have we come? Can we be equals when THAT dynamic exists, when Riley Cooper could still use that word and receive less air-time than Tim Tebow’s latest preseason performance? Shouldn’t this matter more?
On Thursday, Cooper clashed with Cary Williams. Tempers might have risen for any number of reasons, perhaps reasons not racial. But no matter how many Eagles teammates came between them, this fight lives on. Yes, Allen Iverson, we’re talking about practice; but we’re also talking about something Cooper will face all season, and a fight, a stigma, black players have faced since there weren’t facemasks to hide their distinct features.
And the only fight that will heal this wound is if Cooper stops isolating himself from his teammates. If writers, the media, the league stop isolating themselves from this issue.
If we break down that fence and see what’s on the other side before someone else tries to jump it.