Sunday, Aug. 4, Philadelphia
I see Riley Cooper getting a second chance.
We’ve probably all done a lot of thinking on this story of Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper using a racial slur when confronted by a black security officer at a concert in Philadelphia in June. If you’re human, you’re disturbed by it. The fact that Cooper is white, and plays on a team with some black players who are now inclined to hate him, makes this a very slippery slope for a team in modern sports to handle. The first response—and maybe the second and third—was that the Eagles should cut him. Make a statement that this won’t be tolerated by any employee of their organization.
That’s a justifiable reaction, certainly. But I don’t see the Eagles doing it. I see the Eagles giving Cooper counseling for as long as he needs it, and my gut feeling is they’ll bring him back to the team, likely as a member of the 53-man roster when they’re set in four weeks.
Why? Lots of reasons. But one of them could very well be the ghost of LaGarrette Blount.
In 2009, after Oregon’s first game of the season at Boise State, star running back Blount punched a Boise player in the head in the heat of a post-game skirmish. Kelly, the first-year head coach of Oregon, suspended Blount for the rest of the season. A month later, convinced Blount truly regretted what he’d done, Kelly changed course, setting in motion a plan for Blount to rejoin the team if he followed a strict set of guidelines on the field and at school. Blount followed the rules, and played the last two games of the season. One of Kelly’s advisers on the Blount case was former Colts coach Tony Dungy. Kelly’s reinstatement of Blount allowed Blount to rehab his image and gave him a shot at the NFL. So when Blount unexpectedly rushed for a rookie-high 1,007 yards in Tampa Bay, Dungy took a photo of a big banner celebrating Blount’s accomplishments and emailed it to Kelly. Dungy told Kelly, in effect, that without the coach’s forgiveness, Blount probably never would have been in the NFL, never mind rushed for 1,000 yards.
And over the weekend, Kelly reached out to Dungy again, asking him for his thoughts on the Cooper case.
“I told him to trust his instincts,’’ Dungy said Sunday night, reached in Canton before working the Dallas-Miami preseason game for NBC. “He can use this as a teaching moment, and his decision could pull this team together.’’
Three years ago, Dungy recalled Sunday night, “Chip could have kicked Blount to the curb. He chose to believe in him. And it worked out. With Riley Cooper, this kid made a mistake. Everyone makes mistakes. The big issue, too, is the alcohol. That has to be dealt with. But Chip will make the right decision. He doesn’t care what the popular opinion. He cares about what’s right.’’
I don’t know the players nearly as well as the local beat people do, and I don’t doubt a few of them want Cooper gone today and forgotten tomorrow. I spoke to Kelly Sunday before I spoke to Dungy, so I didn’t get to ask about the specter of Blount impacting this call. But Kelly sounded dove-like here. “I think Jason Avant said it the best,’’ Kelly said. “He said, ‘This isn’t something you sweep under the rug.’ You’ve got to address it and communicate with our players, and they need to be able to communicate with us and have an open forum. I do believe, though, that Riley understands the ramifications of what happened. But there’s still a process of everyone going through their acceptance of him. I believe I know what the endgame will be, but I don’t know what the timetable is.’’
“The last thing you want,’’ Michael Vick said to me after practice, “is for a man to be helpless. We should help. Some people might not understand that, but I don’t care what other people think. I’m past that point of my life now.’’
Vick has run the gamut of emotions, but he’s now willing to give Cooper a chance.
“Just because he made that one mistake doesn’t mean he can’t overcome it,’’ Vick said. “Or he can’t be condemned for it. Everybody deserves a second chance … Just for one second, expand your mind. Expand your mind and have supernatural thinking about it. Everything doesn’t have to be negative. Everything can be fixed. So many people forgave me. And it took time. It’s still taking time.’’
I left the Eagles’ complex Sunday feeling Cooper will have the chance to—as he told the team when the news broke last week—“make it right.” Then it’ll be up to him, and to how forgiving his mates will be.
My feeling? I definitely think the Eagles should keep Cooper, unless the situation becomes powerfully untenable in the locker room.
I think back to Martin Luther King preaching nonviolence and forgiveness. I think, just last month, of Trayvon Martin’s parents making this surprisingly placid statement after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of wrongdoing in the killing of their son. “For Trayvon to rest in peace, we must all be peaceful,’’ they said.
I do not mean to make Cooper a sympathetic figure. I truly don’t. But three points are valid here: Cooper has told friends (believe it or not; and I’m not sure I believe it) that he was shocked when he saw the video of himself using the racial epithet, because he says he doesn’t remember doing it. That’s how drunk he claims to have been that night. Two of his best friends on the team over the years have been black. He cried when Cornelius Ingram, a tight end, was cut in 2011. He put a towel over his head and displayed anguish when Jeremy Maclin tore his ACL in training camp a week ago. And one of the team’s biggest leaders, Michael Vick, who has had personal experience with being forgiven for a heinous crime, has both publicly and privately forgiven Cooper.
Cooper is a fighter, and a guy who lives hard. But there hasn’t been any sign that he is a racist to anyone on the team, from what I was told by three Eagle sources over the weekend. There’s something disturbing inside the man, and if he’s being honest (we’ll know soon enough), he wants to learn why such a vile thing came out of him that night two months ago. Easy for me to say, because I am neither black nor spend six months living in close quarters with the man. But the humane thing to do is give Riley Cooper a second chance.