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Saturday, August 3, 2013
On Eagles' measured Cooper approach

By Dan Graziano

Riley Cooper
Had it been up to me, I believe I would have cut Riley Cooper on Wednesday, right after this whole thing broke, figuring that neither I nor he had a chance to ever fix it. Personally, I find what he said and did despicable and inexcusable, and I'd have fired him to get him out of my face. But Chip Kelly, Howie Roseman and Jeffrey Lurie didn't cut him, and Kelly said after the Philadelphia Eagles finished their practice Friday that they weren't even considering it.

"Why not?" is the quick first question, because we live in bloodthirsty times. When we as a public catch a celebrity or a pro athlete doing something as unconscionable as Cooper did, our tear-down instincts kick right in. The debate immediately becomes about this person's worthiness to remain a member of our society, his work environment, or at least his particular level of fame.

But you don't have to be angry with or critical of the Eagles to ask why they won't cut Cooper. I'm asking out of curiosity, because I find it interesting that the people who employ him are reacting differently than I believe I would in their position. The Eagles have decided to take a more circumspect, less reactionary approach to the situation, possibly because they know and care about Cooper but also, maybe, because that's the wise way -- even the brave way -- to handle this whole thing.

Riley Cooper
Will wide receiver Riley Cooper ever make plays like this again for Philadelphia?
Releasing Cooper would set loose upon the world a 25-year-old kid who may have a disturbing level of anger toward it. Someone capable of using the word Cooper used in that video, and using it in as threatening a way as he did, could well be the kind of person who believes that the world and certain people in it have done him wrong. We don't know that about Cooper, but it's possible. What we do know of Cooper from that video is that somewhere inside of him lives someone capable of spewing hateful speech in a dangerous context. Cutting him certainly wouldn't make that better. Might make it worse. It would serve to distance the Eagles from the ugly situation -- to wash their hands of responsibility for or association with Cooper -- and that likely would be the better P.R. move. But the Eagles' handling of this strikes me as a bit more human, even if that's the more difficult way to go.

The reaction from Cooper's black teammates, specifically Michael Vick, Jason Avant and LeSean McCoy, has been genuine, mature and thorough. They have said they forgive him, that they appreciate and accept his apology, but also that their view of him has forever changed, and with it their relationships with him. Whatever led him to do it that night, Cooper will forever be the guy who's capable of hurling that completely unacceptable word in that upsetting context. It's going to be impossible not to assign that to him when they look at him, when they hear him speak, when the play sent in from the sideline is for him.

And for that reason, I think Ashley Fox may be correct when she writes that Cooper's position in Philadelphia has become untenable. I think there's a good chance he never plays for the Eagles or maybe anyone else ever again. He's not an indispensable enough player to weather something like this, and in the end the stain of that video may prove too indelible.

But as of right now, three days after the video surfaced, that's not where the Eagles stand on the issue. They have chosen to examine, and to help Cooper examine, the underlying cause of the problem. They clearly don't condone his actions. But rather than taking a symbolic stand against racism and hate speech, they've offered Cooper -- and maybe, by extension, the rest of us -- an opportunity to try and find out what it is that lives deep down inside someone that could make him feel this way, say such a thing. Cooper surely knows he's not supposed to use that word. Like the rest of us, he's known it since he was a schoolboy, learning about the most shameful parts of our nation's history. His reaction in the wake of the video's viral turn shows that he understands how serious his transgression was. And yet he still committed it. Finding out why could be a worthwhile effort.

Racism is an insidious problem that keeps our country and our world from being as great as they can be. If eliminating it were as simple as counting and reducing the number of times people say certain words, it would have been eliminated long ago. The problem with racism and the hatred that comes along with it is that they live in a deep place that can be hard to find and harder to examine. Punishment can be justified, and is often cathartic, but it can also obscure the need for a deeper, more serious examination of the root problems. If the case of Riley Cooper could lead us all to something like that... well, I'd have to say that would be useful, wouldn't it?

I've seen the comparisons to the Washington Redskins name controversy, and I don't buy them. I consider "Redskins" an institutional wrong, fixable with a few pen strokes. I believe the team and the NFL should have acted on that long ago, and could do so without any negative societal consequence. The problem at whose center Cooper found himself this week is rooted in the hearts and minds and souls of Cooper and, sadly, far too many other individual human beings who don't get caught on camera and publicly chastised for saying that same word in similar circumstances. It's a far greater challenge to fix, and doing so would take a lot more than the release of one backup wide receiver.