I Kid You Not — what Riley Cooper teaches us about ourselves
January 06, 2014It's hard to know what to do with Riley Cooper.
The wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles made headlines during training camp for having been caught on video (as an old man, I have to resist the urge to say "caught on tape" because nobody uses video tapes anymore) using a racial slur at a concert. Cooper reportedly used the slur in response to being denied backstage access by an African-American security guard.
Cooper, a Caucasian man, was recently the subject of an article on ESPN.com (as a young man, I have to admit that I only skimmed it) that talked about him in terms of "redemption."
To begin, it's never OK to speak of another person with the purpose of hurting them, no matter what the situation may be.
But from my point of view, in most of these kinds of situations, is that it's not a problem of racism—it's a problem of anger management.
I know that Stephen Colbert recently proclaimed that racism is over, thanks to the US Government repealing a Civil Rights-era law about voter registration in the South. But all satire aside, it is still a very real problem for many people.
But at the same time, we live in a society that seems to be always ready to be offended by something. Whether we're driving on the highway, waiting in line at the grocery store or trying to have a conversation on a social networking site, it seems like it only takes the slightest of provocation to unleash a torrent of anger. We're waiting to be offended so we can justify putting someone else in his or her place.
What I mean is this — Riley Cooper decided to use a racial slur not because he's a racist, but because he got mad, and he's like so many of us when we get upset. We want to do as much verbal damage as we can, so we take our language to the extreme as quickly as possible. And to be clear, neither racism nor anger is in any way an acceptable response to an offense. But they are two very different problems with two very different solutions.
Without pretending to be anything other than a sports writer, my view is that racism is an issue of perspective, while anger control problems are, at their core, issues of self-control. Someone who sees another race as inferior generally needs only to better understand the life of another person to feel compassion. It's much more difficult to hate people if you've been a part of their lives. This is obviously a simplified viewpoint that doesn't factor in upbringing and cultural influences, but for the sake of space and time, I'm limiting the scope of this conversation to what I see as the majority of people in this situation.
On the other hand, dealing with anger is usually a matter of understanding ourselves and our own faults and insecurities, because if we're honest with ourselves, we lash out at others in large part because we're trying to protect our own soft spots. Our culture seems to operate in a fragile state of peace; we can all get along with each other just fine for the most part, but once someone crosses the invisible (and often moving) line of offense, it's socially acceptable to hurt them just as much (or even more than) they hurt us. We don't like having our weaknesses exposed, so we're all a little more lenient with those who lash out to protect their own insecurities because we want to protect ourselves if the occasion calls for it.
Thankfully, there does seem to be a difference between a verbal response and a physical response. I think it's safe to say that most people would disagree with a reaction that responded to a verbal affront with physical violence.
I wonder if it's all that different to respond with the verbal equivalent of the nuclear option. The purpose of the person responding to an offense is still the same—they want to hurt the other person as much as they can, or at least as much as they can get away with and still avoid getting arrested.
What I'm saying is this: we're offended (and rightly so) when a person uses a racial slur against someone else. However, I wonder if we're offended in the proper direction. Hatred is hatred, no matter who the victim may be. The cause, in my view, is most often an improper reaction to anger, and not a purposeful dehumanization of an entire race of people.
In the case of Riley Cooper, the article I skimmed spoke about how he's been a great teammate since the incident, and that he's become a team leader. Michael Vick, an African-American teammate, even spoke up in support and forgiveness of Cooper shortly after the incident was brought to light. I doubt that the people who work with Cooper every day would so quickly put this whole thing behind them if Cooper was really a racist. It seems clear to me that he lashed out in anger and wanted to maximize the verbal damage done to the person who slighted him. I don't want to speculate too much, but if the security guard had been white, or any other color, Cooper would have been just as angry and would have unleashed whatever insult he could think of to inflict as much damage as possible.
So in the middle of all of this, in what really is a tricky situation, I think our best weapon against hatred and out-of-control anger is simply a better understanding of the situation. When we see a story like this, it's important to reevaluate our own motivations and reactions so that we don't gloss over the issue. As a white man, it's tempting to chalk this up to racism, because I know I'm not a racist, so I don't feel like I need to do anything differently.
But if I'm honest with myself, I don't always handle my anger well (especially on the highway). If the story of Riley Cooper is about anger management, then by acknowledging that he messed up means that I have to acknowledge that maybe I might mess up someday too. It may not come out in racial slurs, but if I'm not careful, it may come out in a hurtful, damaging way, which is just as bad.
I'm glad that Riley Cooper is a good teammate, and that the other players on his team have accepted his apology and have moved forward as a team. I love sports for this; it's a great example of how we sometimes need to put our own feelings and agendas aside to be part of a team. I don't want to be too corny or anything, but as people, we are all on the same team.
My hope for 2014 is that we can all, myself included, learn how to be better teammates.