Waiting for my flight to take off I decided to watch ESPN. The commentators Herm Edwards, Merril Hoge and Ed Werder discussed the racially inflammatory language of Philadelphia Eagles Receiver, Riley Cooper. Just a few days ago Cooper was seen onvideotape using language that demeans African Americans. In light of the racial tension, disappointment, sadness and anger following the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman, in the murder of Trayvon Martin, Riley stepped on a landmine. Although racism and racially charged language should never be tolerated, the racist language used by Riley came “too soon.”
As the commentators discussed the recent decision between Riley Cooper and the Philadelphia Eagles, that he would be excused from team activity and pursue counseling, some were saying it’s the first step towards the Eagles letting him go. Many questions were asked during the segment: “Can the other players forgive Riley Cooper? Can healing take place? What should healing look like?” But then there was the question that stuck with me, “is Riley Cooper good enough for a second chance?”
As they unpacked the question it boiled to whether or not Riley was talented enough to be forgiven. The general consensus was that he is not talented enough and does not bring enough to the team to warrant a second chance. Then Herm Edwards made the comment “everyone gets treated fairly but not everyone gets treated the same.” To put it bluntly, man that really sucks.
The questions related to issues of being good enough for a second chance and fare, but unequal treatment is not only an issue for Riley Cooper and the Eagles, but it is a major problem in society. It perpetuates a hierarchy of human value that suggests some people are worthy of saving and other people are not. If you believe that is how we should conduct ourselves in society then tell me who gets to choose which people are worthy and on what grounds? For example, George Zimmerman felt Trayvon Martin was not worthy of a chance to live, but the jury felt that Zimmerman was worthy to let go unpunished.
Sadly I believe Riley will be punished and likely let go by the Eagles, not only because they feel he is not good enough for a second chance, but because the Eagles and the NFL will want to prove a point. They will want to show the world that racial bigotry is not and will not be tolerated and should you use racially charged language – we will destroy your career. They also just want it to go away.
If this is the direction they choose it will be pretty sad, not only for Riley Cooper, but for the Eagles, the NFL and this country. It will be sad because we will miss yet another chance to show people what healing, forgiveness and reconciliation looks like. As a minister, when I look at the Bible and the Gospel, it teaches forgiveness and reconciliation, even though I am saddened and angered by Riley’s words, I have to conclude that he is good enough for a second chance. Think about it, Change is a contact sport. All of us are good enough for a second chance. That’s the beauty and power of God’s grace. We are called to forgive and seek reconciliation. You cannotexpect forgiveness and reconciliation for yourself if you are not willing to offer the same thing to others. All of us have not only made mistakes, but many of us have done things we hoped people would forgive us for doing or saying.
Yes, Riley’s words suggest that perhaps there is a deeper issue that speaks to his core beliefs about people that don’t look like him and seeing African American not only as “the other,” but less than him simply because of race and race alone. Perhaps that’s not what he believes, but when youuse that type of language it suggests a lot about how you not only see African Americans, but probably how you see and treat Asians, Hispanics or anyone else who is not of your race.
If the league and the Eagles choose to simply let Riley go it will not solve the problems. Perhaps it will solve the negative media problem for the Eagles, but it will do nothing to address the fact that yes, there are people in major league sports who hold racial biases towards people who don’t look like them and these people work together everyday. Not only on the field, but in the corporate suite. Also in the stands where people cheer for Black athletes,but hold the average Black person in low regard. In fact, this is the case in many work places across the country.
I’ll say it again, change is a contact sport. The NFL and the Philadelphia Eagles have the chance to do something bold and courageous in this situation. They can move beyond the rhetoric of simply saying racism is wrong and will not be tolerated to actually doing something practical that requires hard work. They can use this opportunity to work with professionals that have the skills to help players confront and overcome their racial bias. Throwing Riley away and destroying his career may make some people feel better because he’s being punished and doing so will allowthe negative media attention to go away. But, if you think that will solve the problem, you are wrong. You cannot overcome racism by simply punishing people, throwing them away and ignoring the problem.
Like football, change is a contact sport. What I mean by that is if we want to heal from racism and overcome the racial divide in this country we must be courageous enough to build relationships with people that don’t look like us. Then have the honest and hard conversation about ourbeliefs, biases and values, and work to understand and help each other heal. By doing so we create a society where all people regardless of race can be free to live a life unencumbered by someone else’s personal bias.
Bottom line, Riley Cooper made a big mistake but he is worthy of forgiveness. Healing and reconciliation are possible. The Eagles and the NFL have an opportunity to do something bold that takes courage by providing an opportunity for the players to forgive Riley and bring him back to the team. They can implement the necessary programs, conversations and interactions that will assist Riley and the team in overcoming racial bias and give the country an example of how we can work together to move beyond this disrespectful behavior.
Rev. Romal J. Tune is the Founder and Executive administrator of two touchstone entities that exemplify this mission; The national non-profit Faith for Change, which solicits community involvement with high-needs schools to keep kids in school and promote lasting academic achievement, and FFC Consulting, which engages and connects principals, companies, and organizations with the faith-based community at large. He is the author of, God’s Graffiti: Inspiring Stories for Teens.
Photo Credit: Yong Kim / AP
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