Thursday, August 1, 2013

Riley Cooper should have been axed: why the Eagles didn't do enough

Race will never stop rearing its ugly head in this country.

It's 2013, and the nation has had a mixed-race President for five years now. So, yes, we seem to be making "progress" in this divisive issue. But, as the brouhaha over Riley Cooper's insensitive and racist remark suggests, Americans continue to be bound to a terrible national heritage:  our centuries long, disgraceful, immoral appeasement with slavery. 150 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, we still deal with its fallout.

We are frequently reminded of this lesson must be taught. Slavery was a detestable part of our history. It  turned Americans into monsters. We need to collectively, finally, fess up to this unforgiveable sin and all its implications. Caucasian Americans can never use a word as  hateful and divisive as the N-word. And we need to make our children understand it is not a word they can ever utter.

I'm willing to give Cooper credit for telling the public how embarrassed he is for his insensitive remark. His public apology at the Eagles training camp today seemed sincere and I really want to believe he will learn from his mistake. The truest thing he said in his public apology yesterday was "my parents didn't raise me that way. I embarrassed them." I believed him. And I feel much worse for them than I do for him. If my child did something like this I would feel eternal shame. I bet Cooper's parents will be feeling shame for a long time and they did nothing wrong.

I was also glad to hear Cooper say that the fact he was drinking was "no excuse." But I would have preferred he didn't bring the drinking into the conversation. By mentioning it, the implication was too obvious. The alcohol "made me do it; this isn't the 'real' me." When you watch the video, and hear the vitriol with which he uses that spiteful word; when you hear the anger in his voice, it is hard to imagine alcohol was doing any of the talking. Riley doing all the talking and there is no way around this: he sounded like a racist.

Jeffrey Lurie, said to be one of the most politically liberal owners in the NFL, should have acted with a firmer hand. Liberals tend to believe in second chances, and it is possible Lurie had that thought in the back of his head when he laid only a $37,000 fine on Cooper. (This was the most he could fine a player, based on the NFL collective bargaining agreement. Cooper is only making around $680,000 this season, so his insensitive comment is bound to hurt his wallet).

But it's also possible Lurie and his new head coach, Chip Kelly, had a heart to heart talk before Lurie made his sentiments known to the media. The Eagles slotted Riley Cooper as their number one wide-out as soon as Jeremy Maclin sustained a season-ending injury. The Eagles need Cooper to play if they want to enjoy a successful season. Therein lies management's dilemma. Pro football is a billion dollar business. There's a lot at stake in showing improvement this year. Lurie wants to give local fans a reason to root.

But I think he may have misread his fan base. Many of us would have been a lot prouder if the team simply cut Cooper, just to send a message: this is Philly, the Eagles don't tolerate racism. Anyone insensitive enough to use such a spiteful word cannot play in Philadelphia.

THAT would have shown leadership. It would have told the world something important: we who live in Philadelphia care more about promoting diversity, securing civility, than we do about corporate profits. Some things are more important that winning. Like loving you're brother, no matter what his skin color is. That's what "Philadelphia", in it's original Greek term, is supposed to mean.

As an educator, I plan on using Cooper's mistake as a lesson in semantics and in history. We must remind students in our classes why the N-word is so offensive. I watched "Roots" several months ago for the first time and I was appalled at how many times I had to hear that awful word during the show. When the TV series (based on the Alex Haley novel) first came out, Americans were not as sensitive to the nuances of the word as they now are. And the series provided a necessary service to white Americans who needed to understand the context of the word and why it is so vile to black Americans. "Roots" was a graphic display of exactly what the word meant. It means a lot more than just the enslavement of dark skinned people.

A person born into slavery had no freedom. You were a thing to be owned. You were not your own person. Your master was entitled, in the legal meaning of the word, to use you however he wanted. Your children were his, too. He could punish you with impunity. He could ask you to perform any demeaning thing he wanted you to do, including having sex with him. Rape was legal and common. If you disobeyed him or objected to being raped, he could beat you. If you died from his whippings and beatings, there was no public outcry and no legal recourse to his murder. When a slaver owned you, your body was his to use. The most common word slavers used to describe the slaves they owned was the N-word. It was universally used with contempt and degradation.

We, as educators, must make students understand that any Caucasian who calls a person of color the N-word is crossing a line that is egregious and hurtful because of the original historic meaning in which the word was used. I have no problem with blacks who use the word as a term of endearment. I wish they didn't because too many uneducated people believe the word has become "acceptable" when they do. But if their use of it can somehow ease some of the hateful implications of the word, if their use of the word helps to remind the rest of us it's off limits, that's a good thing.

This is what the N-word implies: hundreds of years of bondage. Murder. Lynchings. Whippings. Rapes. The total degradation of an entire race of people. There is nothing good in it.

Riley Cooper didn't invent the word. It's been around for centuries, just like hatred itself. But if the Eagles dismissed him for the season for his insensitive remark, I can almost guarantee you this: no white player would ever risk using it again.

We would all have something to thank Cooper for then. And most of us might even be ready to forgive him. Even his black teammates.

1 comment:

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