[B]eing a man, being a good man, a man worthy of praise, a man worthy of admiration, a man worthy of second chances, of redemption even, that takes a whole lot more than catching touchdown passes.
On December 18, 2013, Elizabeth Merrill wrote a front page ESPN.com article entitled “Road to Redemption.” The subject was Eagles wide receiver, Riley Cooper, who earlier this year had found himself the subject of controversy after he was caught on video using a racial slur while threatening a black security guard at a summer time Kenny Chesney concert. Irate at not being allowed back-stage, a drunk Cooper threatened to “jump that fence and fight every [n-word] here, bro.”
The Internet, talk and sports radio and television shows were abuzz, discussing all angles of the Cooper incident: Is there a double standard regarding the use of the n-word by white people? How could Cooper continue on amongst his teammates in the Eagles locker room? What should the Eagles do? Ultimately, the Eagles fined him, and he took a short leave of absence to undergo counseling. But—with their receiving corps severely depleted—the Eagles did not suspend or cut him.
Since rejoining the team, Cooper has gone on to have an excellent, if not spectacular, football season. Through 14 games, he has 743 receiving yards and 7 receiving touchdowns, second on the team in both statistics. With young QB Nick Foles at the helm, the dynamic RB LeSean McCoy in the backfield, and a solid receiving corps, including DeSean Jackson and Cooper, the Eagles have surged after a poor start and currently lead the NFC East with an 8-6 record.
With the holiday season upon us and the regular season wrapping up, it appears it was a good time for a dramatic and heart-warming tale of redemption. Above the originally posted link to ESPN’s “Road to Redemption” article were two pictures, artfully blended together at their borders. On the left, there was a large black-and-white image of Cooper’s face gazing intently towards . . . something. Next to that, on the right was a color photo of Cooper jogging off the football field, his long hair, name and uniform number are visible from the back, and his right arm is raised triumphantly. The byline for the article read: “After a racial slur nearly got him run out of Philly, Riley Cooper is playing a key role in the Eagles revival.”
It is well known that America loves to give second chances. We like the idea that if we make a mistake, if we recognize the error of our ways and correct it, we can be forgiven. A person’s rise after a fall is a compelling and relatable story. This is also country that lionizes its on the field sports heroes. Despite Charles Barkley’s admonishment to the contrary and the rich and growing body of evidence that supports his thesis—see, e.g., Aaron Hernandez, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant—we still tend to consider our sports superstars to be heroes and role models.
But here’s the problem: Riley Cooper did nothing to “redeem” himself. He stopped talking about the episode. He caught a bunch of touchdowns. And the Eagles won a bunch of games. This quote from the article pretty much sums it up: “I don’t know if I’m doing anything different,” Cooper said. “I’m just trying to go out there and play as hard as I can.” The take-away from the ESPN article appears to be that catching a few touchdowns on a winning team and keeping your mouth shut and nose clean for a few months will absolve you of your responsibility for your drunkenness and racism.
Re·demp·tion [ri-demp-shuhn]: The act of atoning from a fault or mistake.
To quote A Princess Bride, “I do not think that word means what you think it means,” Ms. Merrill. The ESPN Riley Cooper “Road to Redemption” article amounts to another illustration of how success in sport can trump bad behavior. It’s like a bad cartoon where Riley Cooper goes to his priest to confess his sins and is told to catch one Hail Mary (and six other assorted touchdowns), and that in exchange, all is forgiven and all is right in the world. It can’t be that it works this way.
Are we really supposed to now laud this guy as a hero, praise him for overcoming his self-imposed adversity?
Because, I prefer not to.
Do not misunderstand me to be saying that we should not have the capacity to forgive those who are deserving of second chances, those who atone from their faults or mistakes. We can, and we should. But neither his catches, yards, nor touchdowns (and there have been some good ones) are evidence of atonement. And the quiet passage of time, his individual sports successes, and the success of his sports team do not substitute for or signal any personal growth.
It takes effort to differentiate an admiration for a person’s athletic achievement from an admiration for that person’s character. That they are two very different things often seems to get lost in our society and culture. Eagles fans and sport fans watch Cooper, they watch the Eagles, and they admire their on-field performance, their success. In the context of the sport, it is praise-worthy. But the Eagles having a good season, or Riley Cooper having a good season, is quite a different thing from Riley Cooper being a person deserving of praise for who he is.
This seems to be is difficult for us, to differentiate between Riley Cooper the athlete who we are presented with performing feats of athleticism that help propel his team to victory, from Riley Cooper, the man. But it’s important that we take care to guard against mistaking athletic achievement or fame for character. Because being a man, being a good man, a man worthy of praise, a man worthy of admiration, a man worthy of second chances, of redemption even, that takes a whole lot more than catching touchdown passes. And a society that doesn’t demand that will someday soon be in search of its own redemption.
Credit: Photo — Flickr Dennis Hill