Commentary

Riley Cooper won't be Eagle for long

Simmering tension over racial slur will inevitably cost embattled receiver his job

Originally Published: August 1, 2013
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- After every drill Riley Cooper ran in practice Thursday, he jogged to the sideline and stood by himself. He didn't interact with teammates. He didn't talk. He was a man among 89 others, yet he was alone.

It is going to be difficult, if not impossible, for Cooper's football career in Philadelphia to continue after video emerged Wednesday of him directing a racial epithet at a security guard during a Kenny Chesney concert last month. Many of his teammates, as Michael Vick told me, are "shocked and appalled" by Cooper's behavior. Emotions are raw. Players are trying to figure out how to coexist with a teammate many liked and called a friend.

"Guys are hurting right now," Vick said.

What Cooper said is clearly unacceptable and wrong. It is tiresome that we must even discuss this issue in 2013. We should be past it.

Given the negative power of the word Cooper used, many teammates won't be apt to forgive and forget. It is an issue that could divide the locker room, as first-year coach Chip Kelly acknowledged Thursday. It is an issue that could undercut Kelly's authority, given that the team fined Cooper but did not suspend him.

Cooper is radioactive. He is divisive. And while Kelly likes the size he brings to the field, Cooper isn't a star. He's a wide receiver who has caught 46 passes and scored five touchdowns in three seasons in Philadelphia. Even with fellow wideout Jeremy Maclin out for the year after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, the Eagles can live without Cooper. They have 11 other wide receivers on their training camp roster, in addition to seven tight ends, which in Kelly's offense are equally important.

Kelly said that in assessing punishment for Cooper -- the team swiftly fined him an undisclosed amount of money Wednesday -- he never considered taking Cooper's roster spot from him.

He will have to reconsider.

This issue isn't going anywhere. It is living in the locker room.

Cooper has said and done the right things since the news broke. He personally apologized to Kelly, owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman. He apologized publicly. He apologized to the team.

But that doesn't erase what he said.

After Cooper addressed the team Wednesday, Kelly opened the floor to anyone who wished to speak. Vick spoke first. Then veteran receiver Jason Avant, a close friend of Cooper's, spoke.

Vick wouldn't divulge exactly what he said -- "I was in a different mood yesterday," he said -- but the message touched on the power of second chances and forgiveness.

[+] EnlargeRiley Cooper
Drew Hallowell/Philadelphia Eagles/Getty ImagesRiley Cooper fills a role on the field for the receiver-needy Eagles, but he has also alienated teammates.

"I tried to defuse it for a day, but I can't make it go away," Vick said. "I can't do that. It's too big."

Huge, actually. That's why Kelly said, "In situations like this, X's and O's go out the window." It is why he had position coaches talk to their players about it, and why he will set up meetings between Cooper and new players who might not know him well, if at all. It is why the Eagles are insisting Cooper receive counseling. It is why Kelly acknowledged there could be "a concern" that Cooper could divide the locker room.

"It's a very hot topic," Kelly said. "That's why I encourage our group and our team, we talked about it [Wednesday] night at the team meeting, we have to have some open communication to make sure that everybody understands what went on, and then what Riley's doing to atone for that."

Vick is concerned. He has as good a read on the locker room as anyone. He is one of the team's leaders. He is the oldest player on the roster. He has been around.

"I'm not going to let this divide the locker room," Vick said. "We have football games to win. We have to pull together."

But Vick acknowledged that not everyone is as willing to move on. Ask five players how they feel, Vick said, and you'll get five different answers. Running back LeSean McCoy said Cooper had been one of his friends but that he has lost respect for him. Avant quoted Bible scripture when explaining why he offered forgiveness, but another player I talked to said he was "sickened" by what Cooper said and couldn't forgive him.

Locker rooms are delicate environments that can be torn apart by smaller issues than this. Terrell Owens once infamously divided the Eagles' locker room because of his feelings about Donovan McNabb. What Cooper said hit nearly every one of his teammates in the gut, which means it will threaten the locker room environment even more. Players must choose: forgive or not.

Another thing Vick said got my attention. I asked whether he knew Cooper to be seemingly able to effortlessly use the N-word, even if he had been drinking.

"No," Vick said. "That's the thing. That's not the guy we know. We know Riley."

Vick paused for a second.

"Or maybe we don't," he said.

That's a problem. That can fester. Part of building a winning football team is getting guys to play for each other in good times and bad. It's a relationship business.

No one was playing with, much less for, Cooper in practice Thursday. It's hard to envision that changing, which is why the Eagles are going to have to cut him.

Cooper's career in Philadelphia can't survive this, because Kelly's first season in Philadelphia can't survive him.

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