The Eagles, Riley Cooper and the N-Word
Anyone following the NFL and specifically the Eagles is aware that Riley Cooper, starting Wide Receiver for the Brids, had what can only be termed a racial incident in May at the Kenney Chesney Concert in Philadelphia.
Over the weekend the Eagles and the New England Patriots took center stage in a Friday Night Primetime pre-season game. The way the pre-season works is that the starters don’t usually play much of the first of four pre-season games. Weeks two and three usually see much more in terms of actual starters playing at full speed. But Friday’s game was significant for a couple of reasons.
First, Andy Reid had been the coach of the Eagles for the past 13 years. After two disappointing seasons he was let go and a new coach, Chip Kelly, was hired. Friday was Chip Kelly’s NFL debut as a coach.
Second, one of the most controversial players in the league, Michael Vick, is attempting to save his floundering career. Coach Kelly has decided that there is an open competition at the Quarter Back spot and because of that no one is sure whether Vick or second year player Nick Foles will start at QB.
Third, after starter Jeremy Maclin went down with a season ending ACL injury several weeks ago, Riley Cooper, a three year backup for the Eagles, became the de facto starter. Cooper, as you can see in the video above, had a racial meltdown in May. The Eagles have spent weeks trying to manage this moment of racism by Cooper, and they have failed utterly.
The Birds fined Cooper an undisclosed amount. This move, while seemingly the right thing to do, in essence blocked the League from imposing stiffer penalties for the conduct. The collective bargaining agreement for the NFL states that no player can be punished by the team and the league for the same incident. So the Eagles, perhaps unwittingly, perhaps on purpose considering how seriously they need Cooper, protected him from suspension.
Next, the Eagles allowed Cooper to leave training camp to “seek help,” understanding what he’d done and how he’d let everyone down. While the Eagles didn’t explicitly say seeking counseling – Alcohol and or anger management/sensitivity training – they certainly implied it strongly.
But what in fact happened was Cooper when home to Florida for a long weekend to stay and talk to his parents. Ok. Hmmmm. Not the same thing at all. I get the reaction, huge embarrassment, facing the end of your career at 25 years old, just as it was taking off, your own conduct causing all the trouble in your life. I get the desire to go home to mommy and daddy and lick your wounds. But Cooper’s sojourn home does nothing to address the problem of his conduct and how it will affect the locker-room of the Philadelphia Eagles.
After his long weekend at home Cooper returned just in time for full practice against the New England Patriots. No notice, not explanation, no presser, no anything. Just a return to full activity. Coach Chip Kelly, who has been woeful at managing this crisis for a number of reasons, announced the Cooper had never been suspended, so he didn’t need permission to return to the team.
Again, if you carefully followed the story as it evolved no one from the Eagles actually said the word suspended so again, the Eagles are technically spot on in their handling of the Cooper saga.
But frankly, I am more unhappy now than if they had simply announced they weren’t going to do anything.
So now we deal with what happened on Friday night. Nothing. No real talk or commentary from the team, management, the announcers. Silence. At least about Cooper and what happened. The announcers blew it off. One of the best things about the pre-season games is that they are covered by non-traditional networks. The announcers are unabashed homers; they are completely rooting for the home team. They use words like We, and Us, because they too identify with the home team. There is no professional distance. I didn’t expect a trashing of the Birds, or how they handled the Cooper mess. But I expected a discussion on the locker room and how a team that is majority black was dealing with a white player who called people nigger.
Granted it was a pre-season game, granted the starters were only going to play a couple of series and then the backups were going to come in finish out the first half. Granted, the game started fast – a 60+ yard run for New England gashed my Birds. But, the announcers, both white by the way, should have spent some significant time while Cooper was playing dealing with the scandal. They didn’t. Here’s what happened:
Despite the fast-paced game, no one mentioned this controversy. When they interviewed the General Manager, they simply asked him about draft picks and hiring new coach Chip Kelly.
After 13 years of Andy Reid with his unparalleled success for the franchise a new coach is a huge deal. It would have been a shame to mar Kelly’s debut with talk of race and scandal but that is what Coopers conduct warranted. And after continued mismanagement and a general pass by coach and owners, it seems that Philadelphia may have a larger problem. As a new coach Chip Kelly made 17 hires according to the Philadelphia Inquirer; zero were black. In a sport where 67% of the players are African American, where Chip Kelly has coached at various levels for 23 years, an 0 for 17 hiring spree is shocking. What’s more, the Eagles have a positive track record on race: black coaches, black QBs, etc. The Birds have been good on race. It is stunning to see how badly they have mismanaged this debacle.
There are unanswered questions surrounding the incident that have become more glaring in the light of this continued mismanagement. For example, the team hasn’t addressed who was where when this incident was going on. The starting center, Kelce was in the video, but a group of players and coaches were also at the Kenny Chesney concert but not in the video. How many of them were present or heard about the incident that night? What did they do when they saw or heard? And again, where the heck is the commish?
Part of Rodger Goodell’s inability to act is legitimate, but part of it seems that if the NFL starts suspending for offensive speech there are going to be a lot of suspensions. There seems to be an institutional fear of punishment here.
The closet analogous situation to the Cooper incident was earlier this year when the NBA fined Kobe Bryant $100,000 for using a gay slur. The idea was to check certain behavior immediately. I think the message was received. But, what message has the NFL sent by their handling of Cooper? Don’t get caught on tape, and if you do, apologize a lot and nothing will happen to you?
To say I’m underwhelmed by the Eagles’ response is the damned understatement of the year. The longer this goes on, the more the team seems to think they can just wait out the outrage, the more disrespected I feel. It has been a crazy summer of racialized madness from the Supremes to Trayvon, to Paula Deen, to even my beloved Birds. I don’t know about any of you but I am simply exhausted.
J. Christian Watts
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