For all of the fantastic pages in Chip Kelly's playbook, there is undoubtedly nothing for this. No coach's handbook tells you what to do when your white wide receiver is caught on video screaming the most hateful of racist words. The response can't be programmed, it has to be natural and it has to be right.
The Philadelphia Eagles' new coach has been given the first crisis of his regime, and it's a serious one. Football, in recent years, has always seemed removed from the racial divide that exists outside. The game depends so much upon team and camaraderie that men of all backgrounds are thrown into battle together. Petty fights over skin color disappear when everybody's goal is to survive for another week.
In the time it took Cooper to spit out a racial slur at a recent Kenny Chesney concert, he broke a trust that will take years to repair. No word has more power to divide. And now that everyone on the Eagles has seen the video, the players will never be able to erase it from their minds. He will forever be the player who said "that thing." There will be players who never forgive Cooper for his words. Their disgust will linger near the surface. The team could break into factions.
That's why Kelly's response to Cooper is so significant. This isn't another injury that can be washed off the roster. No obscure offensive formation will make things better. A nutritional menu or free smoothies won't appease a group that is shocked and hurt and wounded.
Choose wrong now and Kelly risks losing the team before he ever coaches a game. The lingering animosity will loom over everything, threatening to suffocate any momentum Kelly hopes to achieve. Simply slapping a fine on Cooper isn't enough. It looks as if you don't see this as serious. Waiting for the league to do something is dodging responsibility. The response needs to be strong and it has to be about healing. Kelly needs to send a message to his players that racial intolerance has no place in his locker room, otherwise the good work he has done to transform the culture of the Eagles could be wasted.
There's no doubt Kelly is a smart man. His offense at Oregon was brilliant. His players there have described a man with a fantastic mind who is also a great motivator. He can be witty but also acerbic. NFL executives were dazzled by his little touches in Eugene like giving every player an alarm clock to carry around so they would always be on time. But Cooper's comments don't fit in a tidy game plan. They can't be erased with a clever quip or a new formation.
If Kelly doesn't handle everything right when it comes to Cooper, his great vision for the Eagles could fall apart. His every decision will be compromised. Many around the league think it is only a matter of time before Kelly replaces Michael Vick at quarterback with either Nick Foles or Matt Barkley, who are white. How will he be able to make such a move if his players feel he didn't properly address what Cooper did?
So far Cooper has apologized. He looks sad. He looks contrite. But watching him you can't help but wonder if he would look so sad or contrite had his video not made its way onto the Internet? How do players accept him now? How is Cooper not suspended by the Eagles or released? How is he still welcome in a locker room? Perhaps telling was how Vick said he forgave Cooper but his brother Marcus went on Twitter Wednesday evening to berate Cooper in a stream of profanity, talking about a $1,000 bounty to anyone who can knock Cooper out of a game.
The wounds won't go away quickly. Kelly didn't leave college coaching figuring he would have to have to deal with this sort of thing, but now he does. The stakes are higher. His team and the whole NFL is watching, wondering how Philadelphia is going to deal with Cooper's blatant use of one of our most hateful words.
Kelly has to deliver more than a fine. He can't pretend this has been resolved and everyone will move on. He can't let Roger Goodell take the punishment from him. He needs to talk to his team, his coaches, his players. This has a chance to be his greatest moment as Eagles coach.
But if it isn't, the team could fray. Resentment will boil to the surface when the losing comes, and the great hope of Chip Kelly could be dashed before it has a chance to begin.
The Eagles have yet to play a game, and yet Kelly must make his most important call as an Eagle.
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