Riley Cooper is the Philadelphia Eagles football player who on June 9 at a Kenny Chesney concert said “I will jump that fence and fight every nigger here.” Someone got it on video and it went viral. Cooper has apologized profusely, but the criticism has been unrelenting. Now he has left his team to seek counseling. It’s not clear if he’ll ever be able to return.
I’m usually the first one to call out racism, especially southern racism. Cooper is from Florida so he fits the meme. You’d think I’d be the first to excoriate him. You’d think I’d be dancing because right now Cooper is being pilloried–he’s being shunned by his teammates (70% of the NFL is black) and criticized by every talking head. Even Chesney, a country music star, has piled on.
But I am not calling for Cooper’s head. I feel sorry for him. And I think we should give him a break for three reasons.
1. He used a word. He didn’t murder someone for racial reasons like George Zimmerman. Jesus, he isn’t even accused of murdering someone period. Remember Ray Lewis? He was indicted for murder, but somehow that was no biggie. There was no outrage. None of his teammates went on the air saying they didn’t trust him. Advertisers didn’t shun him. The media didn’t pile on. Look, I think the “n-word” is a terrible thing. I am all for punishing people who use it, and particularly those who use it in a nasty way like Cooper did. But at the end of the day, it’s just a word.
If the NFL can make room for murderers, for drug dealers (Sam Hurd,) rapists and a man who tortured dogs, surely it is thick skinned enough to handle the “n-word.”
2. He took responsibility. He didn’t say, “I was drunk,” although he was. He didn’t try to blame the person who took the video or the security guard or argue he was simply standing his ground or say it was a different time or accuse people of being too sensitive or go on Rush Limbaugh and whine about reverse racism. He didn’t laugh it off like Kerry Collins did when he did essentially the same thing a few years ago. Instead he came out, faced the cameras and here’s what he said:
“I am so ashamed and disgusted with myself. I want to apologize. I have been offensive. I have apologized to my coach, to Jeffrey Lurie, to Howie Roseman and to my teammates. I owe an apology to the fans and to this community. I am so ashamed, but there are no excuses. What I did was wrong and I will accept the consequences.”
He also apologized to his parents, because he said they raised him better than that.
3. And my final reason to give Cooper a break is because I understand. And I’m deeply ashamed to admit, so ashamed that I didn’t want to write this post.
When I was 19, a bar girl in Africa started ragging me. I called her a “black bitch.” You got it. When I got mad and drunk and my inhibitions went down, I went straight to race and sex.
I was horrified. I had marched against racism in the South during days when the other side had bricks. Later, I’d gotten maced because of it. I supported women’s rights. I was in Peace Corps for goodness sake. Peace Corp are to the socially righteous as Jesuits are to Catholics. We weren’t racists and sexists, I thought. But when push came to shove, we were. Or at least I was.
I could see the words floating through the air and wished with everything I had that I could grab them and stuff them back in my mouth. I had opened a door into my heart, and instead of the good person I expected to see there, was an ugly little nasty toad of a bigot. I will guarantee you that Cooper is nauseated with what he found behind the door.
But I learned from it. What I learned that we all have some racism deep down inside, even politically correct liberals like me. I learned that it can be very deep and hidden and you can not even know it’s there. I learned that knowing it’s there is a good thing, because years later when I was in charge of hiring and promoting people of color and a different sex than myself, I learned to watch myself and others for inadverdent stereotyping. I learned, and I think I became much better for it.
I know I am still a racist and a sexist, and while no longer homophobic, I’m still a little too quick to stereotype gays or roll my eyes. I try to correct for it, but I don’t tell myself it’s not there. And if you look back at the dozens of kids of color and women and gays I hired, mentored, and promoted, I think some of them will tell you I was a positive influence in their lives. I did some good, even if I’m not as good as I’d like.
Look, I don’t know Cooper. He may be an asshole of the first order. But I do know what it’s like to disappoint yourself in such a profound way that you lie in the dark because you’re just too embarrassed to come outside and face the world.
Hey, it’s fine for us as a society to be pissed off about Zimmerman, but let’s not take our national self-disgust out on Riley Cooper.
I know how he feels. And it’s worse than you can know.