Nothing? Yes, Riley Cooper says what happened in practice was “nothing” — quote-unquote, period, end of story. Apparently, we’re supposed to forget about this shoving match/scuffle as quickly as he wanted us to forget the racial epithet that reminded us, chillingly, how racism still very much exists in 21st-century America.
When the Philadelphia Eagles receiver hurled an ugly slur during a Kenny Chesney concert that was looped into a viral video — “I will jump that fence and fight every (n-word) here, bro,” said Cooper, who later admitted he’d consumed too much alcohol — it ignited the potential for problems in his workplace. For one reason, he plays in a city where sports is interwoven with life in flammable, over-the-top ways. For another, he’s a white guy in a multi-racial locker room. When even Chesney called Cooper’s actions “hateful beyond words” in an ESPN interview, you knew the landscape was dangerous after Chip Kelly — the Eagles’ rookie head coach, straight off the college campus — decided to keep Cooper on the roster after several days of counseling and deep reflection.
All you needed was one teammate to object for this to blow up, again, into a nationwide social crisis.
That teammate was veteran cornerback Cary Williams, a free-agent acquisition who covers receivers in practice and was covering Cooper during a one-on-one drill.
Known as a hothead and agitator during his previous stop in Baltimore, where he was fined for on-field incidents with opponents and actually shoved an official during the Super Bowl, Williams went airborne with Cooper and broke up a fade pass from Michael Vick. Both players fell to the ground, and quickly, a confrontation escalated between the African-American defensive back and the teammate who’d fired the racial slur. According to an Associated Press report, Cooper “got up and shoved Williams first. Williams responded with a couple of punches.” They had to be pulled apart by several players, including Vick, and when Cooper tried to walk away, Williams repeatedly peppered Cooper with what the Philadelphia Inquirer reported was the same retaliatory statement:
“I’m not a (n-word) you mess with.”
That doesn’t seem a stretch considering what Williams told reporters when the Cooper news broke in August. “I think there’s no place for that word in anybody’s language,” Williams said then. “It’s still the same meaning, it’s still a harsh word. … I think that’s one thing we have to work on as a community as far as black people and just taking it out of our vocabulary.”
Would he be able to co-exist with Cooper? “It’s tough to get through, and I don’t know him. But I did see the tape and it’s disheartening for a guy to say something like that,” Williams said then. “I mean you’re angry, but I just feel like it’s several other words or things he could have said. He used something that was just over the top.”
Even as Cooper tried to leave the scene, Williams removed his helmet and kept shouting at him. When Vick interceded and grabbed Williams’ jersey, Williams jawed at Vick, who was pulled away by an assistant coach. It took DeSean Jackson, who split $20,000 in NFL fines with Williams when they grappled last September, to subdue him.
It was senseless of Cooper to try to claim residue from his epithet had nothing to do with the incident, just as it was phony for Eagles personnel to tell a Fox Sports reporter — who wasn’t even there — that this was a meaningless episode. But that’s how Cooper and the Eagles attempted to control the damage. “Both being super-competitive, going for the ball,” Cooper told local reporters after practice. “We had a tangle-up at the ball, we both went to the ground. There was a lot of contact at the top of the route. It was nothing.” Nothing? Oh, it was something, and trying to downplay the incident doesn’t make it go away. What Kelly has now is a full-blown distraction on a team that, as it is, attracts massive scrutiny from local media and East Coast-obsessed ESPN. There was Vick, telling the Philadelphia Daily News that this is not what the Eagles need with Kelly’s debut coming Monday night in Washington.
“I try to be the peacemaker,” Vick said, “but these young dudes don’t respect me. Our maturity level’s got to be on a whole different plane. Regardless of who the catalyst was for the whole fight, that doesn’t matter. We’ve got to be men. We’re not guys who are out on the street, fighting one another. We’re teammates. … It’s game week. We don’t have time for that. I don’t. It’s a distraction.”
And there was Jackson, an agitator himself, echoing the same thoughts to reporters. “Fighting isn’t going to win us the game Monday night,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to play a game Monday night. Practicing and doing things together with camaraderie is what we need, not the opposite, with people fighting.”
Consider it Kelly’s first major NFL mistake: keeping Cooper when he should have released him weeks ago. As it is, he has enough concerns in trying to make his spread offense work in the big leagues. Now, he has a serious issue in the locker room, even if it’s only between two players. As running back LeSean McCoy told ESPN, “Any time there’s something extra on the field with Riley and another teammate or an opponent, that’s the first thing that’s going to come up — especially if the guy’s black.”
And why wouldn’t it? Think Williams is alone in his anger about use of the n-word? “Nobody should say it,” he said last month. “I don’t care if (you’re) white, black, blue, green or purple. The hip-hop culture uses the word and has de-emphasized it. You need to go back and see what our ancestors did to try and rid themselves of that word.”
I’m not saying Riley Cooper, who caught footballs from Tim Tebow at Florida while lined up in the same offense as Aaron Hernandez, should be run out of the NFL. I’m saying he needs a change of scenery, and fast. In Philadelphia, he has become the enemy within.