Has Riley Cooper Been Forgiven for Using the N-Word?

In the sports world, from Richie Incognito to Matt Barnes, the slur is everywhere. But Cooper’s use remains different.

Riley Cooper

Riley Cooper. Photo | Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports


A year ago, most football fans couldn’t pick Riley Cooper out of a lineup. In July, he made national headlines after he was caught on video using the mother of all racial slurs, the “n word.” Since then, Cooper has transformed from borderline practice-squad player to an essential weapon in Chip Kelly’s offensive arsenal.

About the offensive part — some fans seem to think it’s time to move past his vulgar choice of words and simply be thankful Nick Foles likes throwing to this guy. But just as the Cooper controversy seemed to fade away, that word kept making headlines in the sports world. Exiled Miami Dolphin Richie Incognito used it as a tool in his seemingly bottomless toolbox of harassment against teammate Jonathan Martin. Last week, Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes dropped it on Twitter after being ejected from a game. (The tweet has since been deleted.)

Context is critical in reacting to each of these incidents. Barnes, who is African American, was directing the word at his teammates, black guys and white guys, in the same way hip-hop artists use it — as a term of endearment. “I love my teammates like family,” he wrote, “but I’m DONE standing up for these n—as!” What caused a stir in Barnes’ case was that he later told reporters, regarding the word, “You guys have to get used to it.

Incognito claims he used the n-word in the same context, as a rough bit of locker-room camaraderie. “It’s thrown around a lot,” Incognito told Fox Sports, while adding that he regretted saying it. What’s puzzling about the Incognito situation is how many of his black teammates spoke out to support him, and how bullying — not racism — has dominated his story.

That sets up a rather thorny set of rules, in terms of who can use the n-word and when. Let’s set aside the bullying angle and focus on race only. Barnes is black and has no problem with the word, saying it’s “not necessarily a racial slur” (a statement most people over the age of 50 — and many below it — would disagree with). Incognito thought he was just being one of the guys, and the guys he hangs with use the n-word regularly. The lesson: It’s fine for black guys to use it and pretty much fine for white guys, too, as long as they direct it at friends/co-workers who are black and are cool with it.

Cooper missed the memo. He didn’t use the word with teammates — he spat it out at a security guard at a concert. It wasn’t a misplaced attempt at bonding with his pals. He wasn’t hazing a teammate. He didn’t use it like Jay-Z uses it; Cooper used it like a Klan member uses it.

For anyone who can recall a time before the n-word was a staple of hip-hop lyrics, this cavalier attitude about a word that was once solely used as a weapon is hard to fathom. Like it or not, Barnes’ take is pretty accurate. From movies to music to the playing fields and the playgrounds, the word is everywhere. And as long as black guys, athletes or otherwise, toss it around casually, white guys are going to follow their lead. Sometimes, as it seems to be in Incognito’s case, that won’t cause a stink. But there will be more moments like Cooper’s, when that word lands with a sickening thud.

Meanwhile, Cooper’s hot streak on the football field continues. This past Sunday, the only Eagles receiver with more targets was DeSean Jackson. The next touchdown pass he catches at the Linc will surely send the crowd into a frenzy, regardless of skin color. Cooper’s use of the n-word will never be forgotten. When LeSean McCoy got into a shouting match with Cooper on the sideline against Washington, it was hard not to wonder if there’s still some lingering resentment in the Eagles locker room.

The cultural tides have shifted; talk of “stripping the n-word of its power” by refusing to use it, naive. It’s a shot that can’t be unfired, a verbal third-rail. You may despise it, but it’s not going away. And neither should Cooper’s slur — let the NFL and the Eagles forgive, but let us remember that no matter how often that word is thrown around, or by whom, it still has the power to divide and destroy.

Follow @RichRys on Twitter.

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  • pjcostello

    When people like you simply won’t let the incident DIE a natural death, it will never go away. Here’s some more context: Riley shouted the word in a drunken rage, AWAY from football and AWAY from the team and NOT during the season. Of course it was idiotic of him, and ignorant, and every other adjective you want to assign; time to distinguish between a behavior that was stupid, and a person who is. Since we’ve seen just the one incident, and he’s been properly contrite and apologetic, it’s time to let it go.

  • PhillyPete

    Let it go!!!!! “Like the Klan”??? Are you kidding me?!?! This is why you’re generally thought of as a joke. How about Lesean McCoy’s sexist rants with his baby mama? That hasn’t garnered near this much attention. I wonder why….

    • Richard Rys

      Care to share your theory? Or make a salient point?

      • MystiKasT

        Yeah, because Riley is white. Black men are held up as ‘gods’ in our current society, even though they commit crime constantly, have the lowest IQs, and get women pregnant and run for the hills NONstop

        • EnkiduV3

          Sweeping generalizations across the board. Are there black men that commit crimes, have low IQs, and leave their children fatherless? Absolutely. There are also white men that do this as well. The only thing your comment did was tell me that you have not yet met a well educated black man, which is no one’s fault but your own.

        • darkwon

          I am a black male with 3 kids that all love me, have no criminal record, I do have an IQ of 134…but I seem to have missed the memo about being held up as a God in this society…but I am open to such treatment, as this would indeed be a COMPLETE reversal to the treatment that I have received all of my black male life. In more simplistic terms…your comment is absurd, moronic, and completely idiotic and non-sensical. Oooops please excuse the display of my low IQ…you entry level apprentice stooge.

  • IrishMan

    Time to let this die….When people drink too much and get angry, they strike out in a hurtful way. They don’t always mean what they say – they are just angry and being hurtful and will say anything to hurt the other. It was stupid to get that drunk; it was stupid to get that angry at a Security Guard just doing his job; it was stupid to use such fowl language. However, Riley Cooper has proven, over the past four years, that he is a good guy and you should never allow ONE incident to over-rule four year’s of good behavior. Build a bridge and get over it. Now, as far as that knuckle-head Incognito is concerned, it pains me to see a piece of trash like that making millions of dollars while good, hard-working people are struggling at $30K/year jobs……Go EAGLES!!

  • MystiKasT

    Blacks cal me a cracker all day long when I walk around our city — and there is no outrage — what is the problem? Why do blacks get a pass on everything?

    • war

      Blacks call you a cracker all day long because you are an idiot. Your entire argument is as weak as water. Your are a racist pure and simple. It’s people like you that give your race a bad name. It is clear that you lack any form of education. The fact that you want to lump all blacks into any single category is testament to your ignorance. You are a dolt pure and simple. Stop embarrassing yourself and your race and go back to that cave you obviously crawled your azz out of you simpleton.

  • Rashad Johnson

    Get over it ,ever heard of beating a dead horse .Also, do you think the Eagles would have gotten this far without him ? If you do your dreaming .

  • Rashad Johnson

    The cultural tides have shifted; talk of “stripping the n-word of its power”Yeah like the songs that use it every other word .Personal responsibility.I never use the word personally. Its vulgar and has no place in this culture.

  • enufalready

    Seriously?! He made a mistake, it wasn’t meant; its in the past, let it go. Why the need to keep revisiting. Vice versa you wouldn’t. And seriously, you have nothing better to discuss? Bad economy, government overspending, mismanagement of OUR money; theft, fraud, schools, country being bankrupt, that if we don’t get back on path we’re going to be Greece, etc. Journalists, ha!

  • enufalready

    Kudos to pjcostello for saying it like it is. Now let it go and focus on the important issues that affect the country, its people, children….