Tuesday, January 28, 2014
January 28, 2014: Football Focalizes: Racism and Forgiveness
[In this Super Bowl week, a series on some of the American issues and questions with which the sport can help us engage. Join the huddle in comments, please!]
On the story that should inspire me—and why it kind of doesn’t.
Last July, just as NFL training camps were getting underway, video surfaced of fourth-year Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper angrily confronting and using a racial slur to attack an African American security guard at a June country music concert. It seemed for a while as if the controversy would end with Cooper no longer a member of the team, not least because the starting quarterback at the time (and thus the player with whom a wide receiver would need the most chemistry) was Michael Vick; but instead, Cooper apologized profusely, both publicly and privately to his teammates, was fined by the team, and all involved moved on. Cooper ended up having a pretty successful year (partly with Vick as quarterback and partly with his replacement Nick Foles), and the team, after a disastrously bad 2012 season, won its division and made the playoffs (which as I write this post have not yet begun).
There’s a lot that’s inspiring about the Cooper story. For one thing, compared to the divisions and defensiveness that accompanied Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s ignorant and hateful comments (which extended to African Americans as well as gay people), in the Cooper case there was widespread agreement that his words were wrong and hurtful, expressed by the offender himself as well as in the broader conversations. (Those conversations did also include some of the “African Americans use the n-word” pushback that seems inevitable in every such controversy, but most commentators were willing to acknowledge that Cooper’s anger and threat differentiated his comments from other examples.) For another, it seems, at least in the stories and narratives written about the controversy’s aftermath, that the Eagles team and organization has genuinely moved toward what I’d describe as one of my most ideal goals for America: a mixed-race community working to acknowledge and engage with divisive and troubling issues, and finding a new and hopefully more meaningful unity in response to both the issue itself and that engagement with it.
That’s definitely one way to see what happened, and I don’t want to dismiss it. But at the risk of being a Debbie Downer, I have to say that there’s another way to interpret the incident’s aftermath, one that would parallel it to the Phil Robertson story instead of contrasting the two: that like Robertson (star of the highest-rated reality TV show in television history), Cooper is very important to his employer; and so that like Robertson, whose suspension from A&E ended after a couple of weeks, Cooper has been quickly forgiven and accepted back into the fold in order to allow him to continue performing that important (and profitable) role. It’s not either-or, of course; the team and ownership could be thinking of such business concerns at the same time that the players and locker room were moving forward in the ways I described above. And I’m not suggesting that Cooper should be forever disgraced or out of work because of one moment and statement. Instead, and as always, I’d simply note that we need to make sure to keep talking about the difficult and challenging issue, to make sure that we collectively ca model that best-case scenario for what transpired with the Eagles.
Next issue tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?