Riley Cooper's Future in Philadelphia Depends Solely on Football

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Riley Cooper's Future in Philadelphia Depends Solely on Football
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

If the Philadelphia Eagles cut wide receiver Riley Cooper, the reason will be simple: His risk outweighed any potential reward.

According to PhiladelphiaEagles.com, Cooper has been excused from all team activities while he undergoes counseling in the aftermath of his now-viral racist epithet at a Kenny Chesney concert in June.

If Cooper ever plans to return to the team, it will be a football decision by the front office and coaching staff, not a social statement one way or the other.

From the apology perspective, Cooper has seemingly done everything he can.

According to a tipster at Deadspin, Cooper had been drinking since 11 a.m. on the day of the night concert and was upset that he was not allowed backstage. His inebriated state and anger led him to say the racist remark. 

Cooper's apology echoes the sentiment that he was not in control of his mental faculties at the time. Cooper took to Twitter to apologize:

Then, Cooper released a statement (released widely, here via the Associated Press) explaining that he "was raised better than that" and "this isn't the type of person I am." In all likelihood, Cooper could be telling the 100 percent honest truth, and it isn't really fair to cynically impugn his motives or question his sincerity.

Sadly for Cooper, his apology and sincerity mean little to his future with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Although quarterback Michael Vick has shown support for Cooper, via Sheil Kapadia of Philladelphia magazine, it's notable that Vick's statement included these words: 

We all have an understanding that the most important thing for this football team is to learn to move forward as of right now, and that’s what we’re focusing on.

Understand what Vick means there—Cooper isn't more important than the overall goal of the Eagles, and neither are the personal feelings of his black teammates (or his white teammates, for that matter). The purpose of a football team is not to create harmony among its members like a group therapy session, nor is it to help settle racial tensions in America.

The purpose of a football team is to win football games, period. Where the lines get blurred is when issues like this hurt the chemistry, morale and makeup of a football team. You know, things like this, per Albert Breer of NFL.com:

The Eagles can probably win football games without Cooper and running back LeSean McCoy inviting each other over for tea and crumpets. They don't have to reenact the scene from Remember the Titans where Ryan Gosling's character attempts to make his black teammate, played by Earl Poitier, appreciate Buck Owens' music—though maybe McCoy can get Cooper a spot in the next music video he's in.

If only it were just the two of them, maybe then we could hope for a Disney-themed end to this drama. According to ESPN.com's Ashley Fox, that isn't the case:

After every drill Riley Cooper ran in practice Thursday, he jogged to the sideline and stood by himself. He didn't interact with teammates. He didn't talk. He was a man among 89 others, yet he was alone. ...

No one was playing with, much less for, Cooper in practice Thursday. It's hard to envision that changing, which is why the Eagles are going to have to cut him.

This is head coach Chip Kelly's first season in the NFL. This is his first major NFL scandal. He already has a team in the spotlight because of an innovative tempo and offensive scheme that he's bringing to the pros from his time at Oregon. The quarterback battle has the cameras pointed firmly at the practice fields, and he's thinner at wide receiver because of the injury to Jeremy Maclin.

So, if Kelly says the locker room needs to heal, it'll heal.

It'll heal just like the Denver Broncos' locker room found a way to heal when Bill Romanowski reportedly made racist remarks overheard by a teammate and told to Sports Illustrated. That locker room healed because Romanowski was a former Pro Bowl linebacker who had helped lead the team to a couple of Super Bowls.

If it doesn't heal, it's going to be because Cooper isn't nearly as important to the 2013 Eagles as Romanowski was to the 2000 Denver Broncos. It doesn't make what Cooper said any better or worse; it means that his usefulness was outweighed by the risk of keeping him around.

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NFL teams draft and put up with players that may strain the locker room. Frankly, they do it all the time. However, they don't do it when the player isn't talented enough to warrant the risk. That's where Cooper's fate ultimately lies.

Now, separated from both his teammates and the practice field, Cooper's chances are going to be that much slimmer. He's taken a passive role in the process. He can't show that he's needed by the team. He'll need to hope that the rest of the Eagles receivers do that for him by either lackluster play or injury.

Although he is set for a much bigger role in the Eagles' depleted receiving corps, Cooper has never caught more than 23 passes and three touchdowns in a season. He wasn't a first-round pick; he was a fifth-round pick. That same fifth round in 2010 included Ricky Sapp, a talented pass-rusher out of Clemson later cut by the Eagles because of injury. 

Fifth-round picks who only catch 23 passes don't get to divide the locker room. That's not how the NFL works. It never has and never will.

If the Eagles keep Cooper around, it won't be a whitewashing of what he did. It won't be a tacit approval of his actions or some sort of tribute to his sincerity. It will be because they need him on the football field.

If they cut him, it will not be a social statement. It will be because Cooper—as a part of the Eagles—was deemed not as important as the team that employs him.

What Cooper said was objectively and morally wrong. Some don't think it was actually that bad—they're wrong. Some forgive him. Some will forgive him in time. Others never will.

All of that, however, is academic. Cooper's future has nothing to do with any of it. This is a football team, and if Cooper's actions alongside his lack of elite talent have made him expendable, that's a reality he'll have to live with.

 

Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.

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