One aspect of the Riley Cooper “N-word” saga that has almost been overlooked has been the mature, measured and nuanced reaction of incumbent starting quarterback Michael Vick. It was a response that should be worthy of praise, and it does not deserve to get lost in all the shuffling, tweeting and deadline-beating hyperbole that we have all been digesting.
It is now going on 48 hours since we have learned of backup wide receiver Riley Cooper’s drunken, angry, ill-advised and highly offensive remarks that were apparently directed at an African-American security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert.
The video, first posted on CrossingBroad.com—a site that is a cross of Philly sports and TMZ—of course, went viral.
In the meantime, which is typical for what often happens in these controversies, we have been bombarded by the video of both Cooper’s epithet-laden verbal attack and the apology that he subsequently delivered. In the age that we live in, there seems to be no time for reflection and nuance. Typically, so many of us kind of watch and read things and then we spout off our opinions, with the loudest, most cleverly worded or most divisive comments usually getting the most attention.
Will this case be any different? I still hold out some hope—a hope that all relevant parties will take the high road and get it right. Oddly enough, that has been the case for most of the Riley Cooper saga. So far.
Cooper, of course, was caught on a cell phone video spewing "I will jump that fence and fight every n---er in here." Firstly, there is no context in which those words can be explained away. These words are deeply offensive to anybody with even a modicum of morality and a sense of history. Used in this fashion, the “N-word” is ugly, divisive and dehumanizing.
Anybody who thinks otherwise would probably have a tough time being reasoned with on any issue.
The words that Cooper chose to use that evening cannot be defended or explained away easily. Perhaps, we have all said stupid or even hurtful things when angry and/or drunk (I don’t want to assume that everybody has gotten drunk, but I’m pretty confident about the “angry” part), but have we crossed that line?
There really should be no provocation for using those words, and while we have all made mistakes of whatever severity in our lives, I’d like to think that many of us have not used such hateful words spoken in anger.
From the release of those ugly 10-15 seconds, surprisingly, there have been many positives. Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie rightfully condemned Cooper’s actions in very strong terms, and then, after being told to address his own teammates (the majority of whom are African-American), Riley Cooper apparently did so with true sincerity and contrition, and then he faced the media and delivered what appeared to be a true apology—the type that we are not used to seeing and hearing from our public figures. He appeared to be candid, contrite and truly ashamed of his behavior that evening, and he owned up to it.
Does his (presumed) heartfelt apology erase the sting of his ugly words?
That is open to discussion. It is a matter of perspective, and reasonable people may have differing perspectives on this. One can even debate whether the Eagles took the appropriate action on this. Cooper was fined an undisclosed amount, but is not facing a suspension from the team or from the NFL.
It says here that the Eagles have handled the situation well, although I would not have criticized them if they did decide to suspend Cooper for a game or two. When you are a public figure, anything you say (or tweet, for that matter) in public is fair game. In a sense the Florida grad was representing the Eagles that evening at the Chesney concert, and he did so in a most abominable fashion. Hopefully, most, if not all, of us can agree here.
In truth, the issues facing Cooper, the Eagles organization and his teammates is a practical one, perhaps even more than it is an ethical one. How this has played out, and will, from here, is largely about how Cooper’s comments and subsequent apology will go over with his teammates. For those who are deeply offended (and feel betrayed) by his outburst, can they forgive him enough that they can co-exist as teammates and continue to work together with a minimum of rancor.
And in truth, the question must be asked: If the situation becomes too much of a distraction, is his level of play (mostly a backup and special teamer in his three previous seasons, he has been getting more reps as a possible replacement for the injured Jeremy Maclin) high enough to put up with all the potential negatives caused by his own words and the resulting firestorm?
Thus far, the public reaction by his teammates has been mostly, but not universally, positive, with team leader and veteran receiver Jason Avant among those who have seen him as a good man who has made one terrible, but forgivable, mistake. Avant and Cooper's reactions yesterday can be seen on this video courtesy of philly.com.
Enter starting quarterback Michael Vick, who, for a variety of reasons, has been a quite polarizing face of the franchise for the last few years.
Thrust squarely into a controversy not of his making, Vick should be earning more plaudits for how he has handled the situation. Along with Avant, but with a more powerful platform by dint of his position, he has been the leading voice for acknowledging that Cooper’s words were egregious, while indicating the team knows what kind of a person Cooper is and is giving him a second chance.
At a time when his younger brother, Marcus, was serving to exacerbate the situation with his mindless, inflammatory tweets (via John Breech of CBS Sports), Vick admirably seemed to hit all the right notes. In the course of characterizing his brother’s comments as ignorant and saying that he forgave Cooper as a teammate, his most impressive comment (as told to reporters via Geoff Mosher of CSNphilly.com) was as follows “I know what type of person he is ... That’s what makes it hard to understand but easy to forgive him.”
In the space of 20 words, Vick both (if gently) condemned Cooper’s actions and words, yet stood behind him as a person and teammate. The quarterback’s reaction was impressive in defusing the situation (while not dismissing it) and admirable in articulating it so well.
It is hoped that Cooper—who rightfully castigated himself in public for his own actions—will greatly appreciate how Vick and Avant impressively stood behind him when he could have been cast aside by those with great influence in his own locker room.
Riley Cooper has also said all the right things subsequent to saying all of the wrong things to get himself and his organization into this mess. As one who believes in the power of forgiveness, when earned, I hope that Cooper will continue to act in a way that redeems the faith that Michael Vick and others have placed in him.
It shouldn’t be too late to hope for the best. Should it?
Matt Goldberg, a former featured writer for Bleacher Report, is the creator of Bagels and Jocks and a co-author of the 2013 A Snowball's Chance: Philly Fires Back Against the National Media.