Candid Camera: What we can learn from Riley Cooper

Riley Cooper

Riley Cooper used a very bad word and is very sorry someone caught him saying it on video.

To be certain, that he got caught is the only reason the public knows he uses that word. How the public found out is bad for Riley Cooper. That he got caught is the only reason his teammates know he uses that word. How his teammates found out is worse for Riley Cooper.

In the video, which one can find through fairly simple internet searching, Cooper can be heard clearly and distinctly threatening to “fight every n***** here” when he was denied admission backstage at a Kenny Chesney concert in Philadelphia in June. That he used a word drenched in the worst parts of our nation’s history, a word meant to dehumanize an entire race of human beings, is bad for Riley Cooper. How he delivered it is worse for Riley Cooper.

The word came out with a sort of practiced ease. There was no nervousness, no momentary synapse firing of shame or guilt to make Cooper take pause before hurling the epithet. He was being denied backstage access by an African-American security guard and his reaction was to use the most derogatory and denigrating word he could think of, and his delivery of that word gives some indication that this was not the first time he had used that word when talking to an African-American, much less that it was his first time using it at all.

It is a shame that anyone feels that using racial slurs was ever acceptable. That an NFL player-a man that has spent his entire adult life between college and the pros in racially diverse locker rooms-felt using one was not only acceptable, but also necessary is tragic.

And what of those locker rooms? The reactions of Cooper’s Eagle teammates have made it abundantly clear that Cooper knew how unacceptable that word is. The grossly inappropriate excuses borne of familial or cultural upbringing that are occasionally trotted out in such incidents do not apply here (which isn’t to suggest that when they do apply they hold any sort of validity, since they don’t).

Cooper knew not to use that word around his teammates, which means he knew not to use it around anyone.

None of this is to suggest that NFL locker rooms are cesspools of racial discord, or even that the locker room of the Philadelphia Eagles is. In the wake of the video’s release it was widely reported that Eagles of all races were angered by Cooper’s use of the slur, and many indicated a loss of respect that will almost certainly linger.

Among the most vocal about the loss of respect is running back LeSean McCoy. While McCoy says he has forgiven Cooper, he said, “I can’t respect a guy like that,” and described how it hurts “losing a friend” in such a manner. McCoy also spoke on the dichotomy of a public figure, how the word Cooper used when he didn’t know the camera was on him reveals a much truer nature of a man than when he is aware of the spotlight, saying “IĀ felt like it was a manner of thinking that the cameras were off, nobody’s watching and that’s when a person shows who they really are. And that’s exactly what took place.”

Other teammates have chimed in with comments such as “If he’s on the team, he’s on the team. Don’t mean I have to like him,” and “The coaches are saying we should think team first, but this is just crazy, was he thinking about the team when he said that?”

It’s kind of refreshing to see that kind of honesty, that emotion, especially when it comes to something that matters. This word Cooper used, rooted in hate, and the horrors and filth it represents has no place in society, and an NFL locker room represents a high profile part of society. Letting those that wish to keep hate alive know that it is not acceptable, letting them know just how wrong and offensive it is, is necessary. Too often we see high profile members of society, whether they be athletes, politicians, actors, etc. wait when confronted with controversy. Their thoughts and feeling are run through a PR machine so as not to cause additional controversy, much less prolong the original one.

Not that all uncensored emotion is a good thing. After all, Marcus Vick taking to Twitter to put out a bounty on one of his brother’s wide receivers is part of this story too. The difference between McCoy and Marcus Vick is in their goals. McCoy wasn’t advocating revenge; he was advancing a discourse by openly and honestly expressing his regret and anger, while Vick was simply looking for quick and dirty revenge, something that almost always does more long-term harm than the short-term satisfaction.

And credit Michael Vick for putting out that particular fire. He dismissed his brother’s comments as ignorant, publicly stated his forgiveness of Cooper, and still expressed his disappointment in Cooper’s actions. Michael Vick understands that one must atone for their misdeeds; he understands it better than most. And yes, his statement, “I know what type of person he is, that’s what makes it hard to understand but easy to forgive him,” seems polished, lacking the raw passion of McCoy and other Eagles, but it comes from a man that knows what it is like to monumentally screw up a career and a life, granting it a unique relevance.

McCoy and Vick may have had very different public reactions to Cooper’s slur, one brimming with anger, the other tinged with disappointment. But both are necessary to a constructive dialogue about the power words can hold. Both are encouraging signs that such a dialogue can take place in public between high-profile individuals.

Riley Cooper used a very bad word. That’s bad for Riley Cooper, the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL, and especially any impressionable mind that looks up to Cooper as a hero.

The rest of the world, led by his teammates, immediately and appropriately rebuked Riley Cooper for using a very bad word. That’s good for all of us.

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