It’s a good thing for Kerry Collins that Twitter wasn’t around in the late 1990s. The 17-year NFL veteran was the first player selected in the history of the Carolina Panthers franchise, but he’s perhaps best known for something that happened off the field. In 1997, at a party held to celebrate the end of training camp, Collins directed a racial epithet at second-year receiver Mushin Muhammad. Mike Freeman, now of CBS Sports and then of the New York Times, wrote that Collins had the kind of relationship with some of his black teammates where some of those teammates were not offended by whatever word was used (you can certainly figure it out). But Muhammad was not one of those teammates. A fight nearly broke out, and that story followed Collins through the rest of his career. He threw for over 40,000 yards and appeared in Super Bowl XXXV with the New York Giants, but some will only remember Collins as the guy who called his teammate an unacceptable word.
That’s how long such a thing can follow you. One stupid, thoughtless utterance in that regard, and you’re going to carry it with you for a long, long time.
''Kerry apologized and everything is fine now between the two,'' Collins’ agent, Lee Steinberg, told Freeman back then about Collins and Muhammad. ''These are real human beings who interact with each other on a daily basis. But Kerry definitely has no problem with black people.''
Maybe Riley Cooper has no problem with black people, but he’s going to have one hell of a time convincing anyone of that now – including and especially his own teammates. The Philadelphia Eagles receiver, projected to move up the depth chart after the recent injury to Jeremy Maclin, was caught on video at a Kenny Chesney concert at Lincoln Financial Field in June, saying to an African-American security guard that "I will jump that fence and fight every [N-word] here" during an altercation.
Adding the threat of violence to that implicit racism makes it even more reprehensible, but it’s the one word that Cooper will have to get over. And it doesn’t really matter if Cooper has never uttered that word in anger before, which he said during his Wednesday press conference/apology. That’s extremely difficult to believe – a look at the video shows a guy who seems pretty comfortable with that particular term. What those people who work with Cooper in the game of football will have to do is to decide whether it’s something they can get past. Quarterback Michael Vick seems to have done so, at least publicly.
"He apologized for what he did, and as a team we understood," Vick said on Wednesday evening. "We all make mistakes in life and we all do and say things that maybe we do mean or we don't mean. But as a teammate, I forgave him."
Vick’s brother Marcus put a Twitter bounty on Cooper’s head, vowing to give $1,000 to any safety that “lit his [expletive] up.” That move was equally moronic, in that it took attention away from the real issue at hand. Besides, we’re all out of Marcus Vick jokes.
The question should be, how do the Eagles work through this issue, and what can be the result? Owner Jeff Lurie has fined and publicly censured Cooper, which seemed like an appropriate result. Some would like Lurie and head coach Chip Kelly to release Cooper from his contract, which would seem to be an equally appropriate result. But this is a team already down one receiver, and it could be argued that Cooper’s thoughtlessness and sheer stupidity shouldn’t hurt the team more than it already has.
“In meeting with Riley yesterday, we decided together that his next step will be to seek outside assistance to help him fully understand the impact of his words and actions," the team said in a statement released Thursday morning. "He needs to reflect. As an organization, we will provide the resources he needs to do so.”
In the end, that's the best possible outcome.
When former Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis made a series of remarks on “Nightline” in 1987 which questioned the abilities of black people to assume the responsibilities of field manager and baseball executive, he was summarily fired. But when then-Commissioner Peter Ueberroth hired noted civil-rights advocate Dr. Harry Edwards to investigate Major League Baseball’s history of diversity, Edwards hired Campanis to assist him. The hire seemed weird at the time, but Edwards’ explanation spoke to a greater good.
"Why wouldn't I believe him?" Edwards told the Los Angeles Times, when asked how he could believe that Campanis would be sincere in his desire to change. "If he's willing to speak out against racism, who cares? The point is, he made some inarticulate, disjointed statements that prompted him to clarify his own beliefs."
Now, it’s Riley Cooper’s turn to clarify his own beliefs after his own inarticulate, disjointed statement. He’s said all the right things so far – he wasn’t raised that way, he doesn’t really believe what he said, and on and on. But to the larger point, I believe that the Eagles did the right thing – intentionally or not – by keeping Cooper on the team and forcing him to confront the emotions of the people he hurt the most with his words – his own teammates.
By staying with the team, Cooper will have to deal with the ramifications of his words, and if he sees the kind of forgiveness that Vick has shown, perhaps he will be forced to exorcise whatever is in him that would make him believe that such things are okay to do. Did Riley Cooper do a stupid thing? Absolutely. Does it make him a dumb person? That’s certainly plausible. But how do you make dumb people smarter? You put them in environments that force them to deal with their own ridiculousness, and hope it will eventually add one more fairly intelligent person to the universe.
Turning Riley Cooper loose? Well, at that point, he’s just one more unemployed bigot, able to insist that he was shot out of a cannon by the NFL over the issue of political correctness. Such a thing would likely make him angrier, and bring more bias to his heart. The dumb guy stays dumb.
Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Bobby Bragan was one of the players who threatened to quit the team when general manager Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to Major League Baseball in 1947. Rickey called Bragan’s bluff, and Bragan stayed. Bragan learned from the experience, and he attended Robinson’s funeral as a friend in 1972. When asked why he did so, Bragan said that “Branch Rickey made me a better man.”
The challenge now for Riley Cooper is to become a better man. We can but wait and see if he’s up for it.