In yet another episode of life interrupting football, we learned earlier this week that Philadelphia Eagles’ wide receiver Riley Cooper has rejoined his team. Cooper took a leave of absence following the release of video footage of him yelling a horrible racial epithet at an African American security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert in June.
Since the release of the video last week, NFL players and pundits have been outspoken about this incident. All agree that what Cooper said was reprehensible. Some believe he deserves a second chance, while others say he should be cut. If you haven’t read Jason Whitlock’s piece on Riley Cooper, you might want to give it a read (spoiler alert: Whitlock argues for a second chance).
Running back and teammate LeSean McCoy, describing the dilemma perfectly, said:
He’s still a teammate. I’m still going to block for him. I’m still gonna show great effort. Just on a friendship level, and as a person, I can’t really respect somebody like that. I think as a team, we need to move past it. There are some things that are going to be hard to work with, to be honest.
Eagles Head Coach Chip Kelly, in his first year with the team, has a tough decision to make – how does the team “move past it?” On the one hand, Cooper is talented and was expected to start after Jeremy Maclin was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the offseason. Cooper is also young – he’s just 25 – and doesn’t seem to have a history of causing serious trouble. He also offered an immediate and sincere apology. Additionally, Cooper said what he said in a non-football situation, where he, as a private citizen, is free to say whatever he wants to say.
Over the past year, the NFL has seen its share of difficult situations. Clearly, the murder of Kasandra Perkins and alleged murder of Odin Lloyd by two NFL players – former Kansas City Chief Jovan Belcher and former New England Patriot Aaron Hernandez, respectively - top the list. We’ve also seen discussions of gay marriage, led by now-Raiders punter Chris Kluwe and former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and standout special teamer Brendon Ayanbadejo; debated how the NFL is treating retirees suffering from concussion-related ailments; and witnessed the usual spate of performance-enhancing drug incidents and off-the-field crimes.
Like Cooper, we’ve all said things in private or when inebriated that we regretted later. Cooper just got caught, and got caught publicly. As a society, we often maintain, and rightly so, a tolerance for second chances. We have compassion for those who make mistakes, own up to it and pay their debt. Riley Cooper made a mistake. He owned up to it. He has been fined and his relationship with many of his teammates is now damaged forever. Perhaps most harmful of all for Cooper, he will forever be known as “the racist guy,” no matter where his career takes him.
It looks like Chip Kelly agrees. Whether out of a desire to give Cooper a second chance or the need to keep Cooper’s receiving yards with the Eagles or some combination of both, Kelly wants Cooper back. I respect Kelly’s decision, but disagree with him.
What Cooper said was so full of historical violence and hatred that if I were Chip Kelly, I’d cut him today, for two reasons.
First, regardless of whether Cooper is a Pro Bowler, a rookie or a third stringer, the challenges that his statement brings to the locker room are just not worth whatever his on-the-field contributions may be. Football is a game like no other. Unlike many of us with day jobs, you live, breathe, eat and sleep with your teammates, and the amount of chemistry built directly impacts the collective performance on the field. If I knew that one of my battle-mates felt so comfortable in his hatred of others to utter something similar about my race, then I’d respond like LeSean did – I’ll do my job because I’m being paid to do my job, but I don’t trust the guy anymore. That feeling – and it’s likely not just McCoy who feels it – is the spark that will surely ignite a flame later on in the season.
But perhaps more importantly, for Chip Kelly – and any NFL player or coach – the standard must be set higher. Bigoted statements seething with hate have no place in this league that understands well that NFL personnel are, and should be, role models. Cooper’s words directly conjured up perhaps the ugliest period in American history, an epidemic of sanctioned murder, enslavement and second-class citizenry of an entire group of people. Those who perpetrated these crimes were rarely punished and often celebrated. In other words, there was no penalty for their horrific behavior. For the sanctity of team chemistry and the high standard of rejecting intolerance at any level, Cooper’s words must have consequences because without consequences, there’s no progress.
Cooper will get a second chance, whether with the Eagles or another team if he is eventually cut. He’s going to be just fine. But by Kelly cutting Cooper now, Kelly would send an unequivocal message to his team, Eagles’ fans and the NFL: intolerance is unacceptable and we will lead by example when others will not.