By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) I’ve said it. Thousands of times. It’s not something I’m proud of. Much the opposite, really.
But what I am thankful for is that I was given the opportunity to learn and, ultimately, to change for the better. And Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper needs to be granted the same opportunity. Not just for his own benefit, but for everyone’s.
I give Cooper the benefit of the doubt when he said his parents didn’t raise him to use the n-word because neither did mine. That word didn’t fly in my house growing up, particularly with my mother, the special education and later first grade teacher. I grew to use the word in social circles. Friends and classmates used it, so I wasn’t about to be some epithet prude. Besides, black people didn’t live on my side of Western Ave. in Beverly and Morgan Park, so it wasn’t like I was saying it around anyone who would take offense. And I, like most of the cowardly ignorant, wasn’t going to seek any of them out to do so.
That Cooper also didn’t try to explain that he was using the n-word recently at a Kenny Chesney concert as synonymous with “mother f***er” or that he was using an “-a” suffix rather than an “-er” is a good thing. Attempting to make an offensive term benign like that is a bad look, and whatever the intention is fairly irrelevant since using the word period shows a lack of understanding of its severity and weight, a major part of the problem.
Cooper does not get the benefit of my doubt, though, regarding his claim that it was his first time speaking it. Nobody uses that word just once, and lying about it when so many non-ignorant people know you’re lying doesn’t help. It’s narcotic-like. It gives you just the teeniest bit of power for the briefest of moments, and you try it again to get that good feeling of misappropriated superiority. And again. And again until it’s an addiction. We get addicted to things that make us feel good, and unfortunately for some people, bigotry does that.
But you have to keep your addiction privy to just other addicts. Society frowns on it, and you know that but neither really understand why nor care to. Like any addiction, two things will then happen—you continue to self-destruct until it kills you, literally or figuratively, or you break from it, either via a personal moment of clarity or some forced intervention by others who care.
I was fortunate enough to experience the clarity on my own. It wasn’t so much a moment I can pinpoint, but rather an emersion in education and diversity and choosing to try to understand the offended that gradually broke me from my habit, made me realize bigotry on all levels and in all forms is unacceptable, and I haven’t used such terrible words in a long time. My process of change also occurred prior to the widespread use of the cameraphone and social media, so I was able to grow from my former self without millions of piercing, vengeful eyes on me.
Cooper happened to use the n-word on tape. That video and audio recording went viral Wednesday. Most of society that rightly doesn’t condone a white man using that word has responded in various ways, though all with a commonality of desiring he be punished. And he should be. Cooper said Wednesday in his apology that the Eagles have fined him. That should be part of his penalty. He’ll likely lose current or potential endorsement money from all this, too. Being addicted to that word will eventually hit you in the bank account if you use it long enough.
But never ones to pass up some good media porn, talking heads are already calling for Cooper’s job. It’s the automatic response today to public figures and racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, sexism, etc. “This person said something offensive and, thus, should not be employed. And anyone who employs or works for that person obviously shares that person’s hate.” Because if history has taught us anything, it’s that denying people the ability to make a living makes them more intelligent, right? I sort of understand that logic with politicians in that somebody who believes that one group of people is inferior to another probably shouldn’t be creating government and public policy.
But Riley Cooper is not writing laws. He’s a guy who gets paid to catch a ball while having other large men smash into him. Taking away his job solves nothing. It won’t make him learn from this other than not to use certain terms while being recorded. Private racism shouldn’t be the goal here. And such punishments, from what I’ve observed in children and adults, tend to create anger in the punished at the punishers rather than the former using the aftermath as a learning experience. Spend a little time on the timeline of the @YesYoureRacist account, particularly those who respond to being exposed, if you don’t believe me. A lot of “I don’t have a problem, you have a problem” type stuff from users of offensive language. To think that not letting Cooper play football anymore will result in “Welp, I’m not racist anymore!” is naïve.
While not a politician, he is a public figure, and because of that there is an opportunity for learning here that none of us should allow to pass unapproached. It starts with Cooper himself obviously. He has to want to learn from this. Not learn not to get caught, but really learn. Learn why people have a problem with what he did—not just what he said, but that he seemed to not let knowingly being videotaped stop him and that the security guard he was referencing was black. Banishment doesn’t foster that opportunity; it only serves to make us, the morally and ethically superior, feel better about ourselves for a little while until the next bout of ignorance rears its blonde, feathered head. We get so wrapped up in condemning and punishing and banging our drums of righteousness that we end up failing, too. Putting a rock over bigotry doesn’t end bigotry.
A perfect example is Chris Culliver, defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers. Culliver, you remember, rightly caught a lot of heat for his comments during Super Bowl week saying he wouldn’t accept a gay teammate. In his subsequent apology, Culliver said “I apologize to those who I have hurt and offended, and I pledge to learn and grow from this experience.”
It doesn’t seem he was merely giving lip service with the latter part, as Culliver has since worked with an LGBT youth group on his own accord in an attempt to better understand why his words were so wrong. It’s a difficult process, though, that journey toward respecting others that deserve it, and I’m not going to pretend it’s one that will always go smoothly.
Cooper needs to walk that tough journey, too, and he needs to be allowed to do so. He’ll face his own difficulties in doing so, in case you want to see him suffer. He has to go into a locker room with black teammates for the rest of his career. None of them would even have to say a word about all this for him to be beyond uncomfortable at work every day for a long time going forward. Yes, some of his black teammates have come out in support of him, but that elephant will still be in the room for a while. And if those teammates are truly forgiving, that’s fine. But I hope they aren’t speaking on directive from Eagles PR. Any teammate who has an issue with what Cooper said should make that known and not be silenced, and if team officials have a problem with that, make them look bad, too. Screw team chemistry and diffusing bad press—this is bigger than football. No sweeping under rugs or forcing silence will serve any greater benefit.
Every black defensive back that lines up across from and looks into his eyes will send a silent message, will be a constant reminder to him. My guess is many DBs, who are also professionals at getting into an opponent’s head, aren’t going to be silent. I certainly don’t advocate a stupid bounty or any physical repercussions—that isn’t teaching, it’s creating another problem—but Cooper also has to step out on the field this season understanding there may be a greater chance of excessive violence when he goes up in the air to catch a ball.
Oh, Riley Cooper is going to suffer for this, I promise you. He is labeled a racist for life until he can prove otherwise that he’s chosen to be clean. But putting him in our own special social jail won’t get him clean.
He needs education. That can come through reading authors who put the n-word right in our precious little faces and demand we confront it and understand its awfulness and importance. Your Mark Twains, your Richard Wrights—writers I’ve read with teens who thoroughly enjoyed them, and who didn’t (to prove false a really poor argument) walk away more inclined to use the word, you who would blame rap music.
It can come through experiences and conversations with the people he has offended. It’s not enough to know that we can’t say certain things just because they hurt people. We too often are satisfied with merely the what instead of the why. And that goes for all the cases of bad people in sports. It’s very easy to finalize Aaron Hernandez as a murderer and thug. We sooth ourselves by trying to sound so ethical—“I’ll never understand why someone making millions of dollars would throw it away.” There’s the problem, though—we so rarely try to understand and instead think bringing down the hammer on someone will solve everything. And then the bad perpetuates, whether it be a murder, a drug bust, or an act of bigotry. Because we easily solve the what but don’t bother with the why.
Why does the n-word offend? Why do some believe that black people can use it but others can’t? What does that word symbolize? Is more than just about a word? He and we need to get into the gray rather than just the black and white of this. Everyone. People who despise that word and other offensive terms and people who feel they aren’t as harmful as some make them out to be. Discuss instead of yelling. Read instead of assuming. Accept the possibility that things you have long been comfortable with might just be very wrong.
Cooper can also use his celebrity status to benefit others while improving himself. Maybe donate to charities and organizations that work against bigotry whenever he scores a touchdown or racks up a certain amount of receiving yards. Throwing money at this isn’t nearly enough, though. Publicly documenting his journey would speak volumes for those who are ignorant and are addicted to hate as well as those who haven’t yet learned to be hateful. While his very mention during a nationally televised game this fall should come with noting what happened at that concert, hopefully it also comes with a note about the work he’s doing to make up for that day. Let people know he is working toward being a better person. Make this an advertisement for change instead of hate.
We all need to use Riley Cooper for a greater good, in the exact opposite he used a word for anything but good. He needs to be allowed to learn and to eventually teach the rest of us, and crushing him or his career doesn’t do that.
And I can promise you that when someone is allowed to learn from his own bad choices, to educate himself and then in turn try to educate others, that can be a much better addictive thing.