Racism won’t end in this country with one African-American president, one feature-film homage to Jackie Robinson and one or two generational cycles of hope and progress. Ignorance will continue to seep in toxic and disgusting spurts, and, as we see much too often, sports becomes the backdrop for lessons.
Riley Cooper is 25. He grew up in Clearwater, Fla., and plays for the Philadelphia Eagles. At the University of Florida, in what now seems a surreal triangle, he lined up in the same offensive scheme as Aaron Hernandez to catch footballs from Tim Tebow. In June, Cooper was drinking at a Kenny Chesney concert when he fired the N-word in a dispute with a black security guard. His actions were captured on a video, which went viral.
You know the rest.
The Eagles fined him a substantial amount. Cooper left the team and sought counseling. He could be released any day. “My actions were inexcusable,” he said in a statement. “The more I think about what I did, the more disgusted I get. I keep trying to figure out how I could have said something so repulsive, and what I can do to make things better.”
To his credit, Cooper is accepting the entirety of blame and is devastated by the damage he has caused, saying he’ll meet with “professionals to help me better understand how I could have done something that was so offensive, and how I can start the healing process for everyone. As long as it takes, and whatever I have to do, I’m going to try to make this right.”
Still, the NFL should have joined the Eagles in disciplining him. Commissioner Roger Goodell says the league can’t impose additional punishment because of a rule in the collective bargaining agreement, but he should have tried anyway. A tough-minded leader can’t have blind spots. He can’t rule with a hammer one minute and a flyswatter the next. If cleaning up player conduct has been Goodell’s seven-year mission, he should have told the Eagles not to punish Cooper so he could suspend him.
The mayor of Philadelphia, Michael A. Nutter, is African-American. He is deeply disturbed by the episode and called upon the Eagles and NFL to purge Cooper from the sport. “I find the remarks made by Riley Cooper repugnant, insensitive and ignorant, and all of us, regardless of race or nationality, should be offended by these comments,” Nutter said in a release. “I recognize that the private sector is very different than the public sector in terms of rules and procedures, but I would note that in our government, if an executive branch `at-will’ employee, somewhat similar to Mr. Cooper’s status with the Eagles, made such comments, I would insist on a suspension at a minimum and would seriously have to evaluate terminating such an individual from employment with the city.”
Continued Nutter: “In a year when we celebrated the great achievements of Jackie Robinson in the movie “42”, it is truly saddening that racial epithets are still being hurled like baseballs, or by a football player, at the human dignity of African-Americans and others. This incident is a disgrace, and cannot be excused by just paying a fine, as if it were a parking ticket.”
In Philadelphia, where life is interwoven with sports in highly flammable ways, Cooper likely has no future with the Eagles. He’s skilled enough as a receiver in a pass-happy era that another NFL team might sign him, but not without taking a local public-relations hit. The N-word is burned on his name forever.
The 21st century, we’re reminded incrementally, is still the 20th century.