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.