“There comes a moment, when you get lost in the woods, when the woods begin to feel like home.”
- Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot
Riley Cooper has been wandering through a dark forest for the past seven months. The shadows act as blindfolds with the opacity of black spray-paint; the branches hang like gallows. There are no enchanted woodlands for Cooper, only gloomy mementos he’s incapable of forgetting. And make no mistake, nobody is willing to clutch Cooper’s hand and guide him through the maze he fashioned in June 2013. For Cooper, there is no exit, only more inundated terrain. For the past year, he has walked through this self-made prism of dissolved bonds to both teammates and fans; scared of himself, afraid of his inept acumen. His overwhelmingly uncouth racial epithet became his legacy in a matter of hours. All it took was a camera, a crowd, and country music. Ultimately 2013 will be remembered by Cooper as his epoch – a time where he felt completely alone in a community where you’re incessantly surrounded; an sinking man tied to a thousand anchors.
Blame it on ignorance. Blame it on the drinks and the ones holding them, surrounding him like rings of surreptitious villains waiting for the clock to strike midnight. There is no lucid motive for Cooper angrily spewing, “I will fight every n—–” at a Kenny Chesney concert in Philadelphia this summer. The remarks were disgusting, they were deplorable, and they will follow him like a ghost the rest of his life. But in an era where athletes rarely accept culpability for their actions, Cooper instantly apologized to both the franchise and his fans, while accepting the repercussions, both in and out of his locker room. 2013 marked an intricate year for racial discourse in the sporting community; Matt Barnes and Richie Incognito made fools of themselves in the aftermath of Cooper’s debacle, but validated the notion that these problems continue to persist.
After attending mandated counseling and paying a sizable fine, Cooper has reemerged as an effective wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. With the Eagles winning the NFC Eastern Division, Cooper will have more opportunities to better a season that has already been his finest in the league, by far. Cooper has more than doubled his prior seasonal records in total receptions, yardage, and touchdowns. He is Nick Foles’ second favorite target and – unlike No. 1 option, DeSean Jackson – has yet to fumble this year. If it weren’t for Jeremy Maclin’s season-ending ACL tear, Cooper undoubtedly wouldn’t have seen the field often, and may have been fired in the aftermath of his remarks, as some requested. Cooper has been a much-needed vessel for the Eagles’ offense, with significant improvement on route running, blocking on the read-option, and catching vertically down the field and across the middle.
To play devil’s advocate, Cooper may have been fastened to the stake a bit prematurely. DeSean Jackson used an anti-homosexual slur during a radio appearance in 2011 and was never fined. During last year’s Super Bowl Media Days, San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver was openly hostile to the gay community. He wasn’t fined either. Yet Cooper was abhorred by anyone with a handful of adjectives and a social platform – even ESPN’s Michael Wilbon voiced his disgust with Roger Goodell’s negligence in the assessment of Cooper’s penalty. Cooper was justly served his consequences cold and direct, but let’s not pretend like the guy murdered someone and was still allowed to participate in the Super Bowl in the same calendar year, or assaulted his mother without any ramifications from the league.
Riley Cooper’s remarks broke into more than half of the households in the NFL and served them a term relished by bigots for centuries as if it were an entree. That’s why this became the elephant in the room. That’s why physical altercations ensued at practice and the media collectively embodied the Queen of Hearts for months after the counseling was completed and the fine paid.
The dehumanization of any demographic, regardless of platform, should always be held accountable. But in a community that continually breaks the precedent of holding athletes 100 percent accountable, the narrative of Riley Cooper seems less impartial. Being disproportionately harsh sets an interesting paradigm for the debasement of the LGBT and Asian communities relative to the black populous. Tolerance cannot become a switch; it must be a standard that we are willing to uphold.
It’s human to admit fault and it’s also human to pardon. The anthropological step mankind made by forgiveness allows us all the ability to assess these socially and racially bound issues, but with this aptitude we must also acknowledge the person behind the headline, the man besieged by infinite forest. Riley Cooper isn’t worthy of exaltation, but he isn’t worthy of demonization either. And after he’s overcome the broken shards of teammate relationships and an entire country calling for his head, it appears he’s attempting to rebuild his legacy and resolve as best he can.