It's been a rough offseason for the NFL. Aaron Hernandez stands trial for premeditated murder, two Denver Broncos officials were charged with DUIs, and Oakland Raiders linebacker Kaluka Maiava assaulted someone in a bar.
This latest incident, however, may be just as tough to handle.
On Wednesday, a video surfaced of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper using a racial slur quite maliciously at a concert. Words really can't do it justice, and though it's not as endangering as the aforementioned offseason issues, it's more than enough to leave professional football sick to its stomach. Watch below:
While the league is able to take action with criminals, there's no precedent or legal authority over a player using hateful speech. Police have assisted the NFL with Hernandez, but it seems the league is on its own with Cooper.
Cooper apologized after the video picked up, first with a series of tweets and later to a round of reporters outside Eagles facilities. The Oklahoma native and University of Florida product noted that he "had been drinking" that night at a Kenny Chesney show, and that the altercation was over a security guard not letting him backstage. Cooper acknowledged that the guard was African American.
The apologies are tough to digest. Cooper invokes his upbringing and his own moral code, and says he understands why his words have offended people. But this wasn't a singular action or a mistake: This was Cooper acting in a manner that he's probably acted in before, and only understood the gravity of such action when it became viral and others were disgusted by it. Do you think Cooper would come to such realizations about race if nobody saw the video? Do you really think this was Cooper's first time using the n-word or showing some sort of racist inclination?
The Eagles have already fined Cooper, as he told the reporters, and followed an NFL suggestion to send him to mandated sensitivity training. That's about as much as the league can do. Cooper hasn't committed any legitimate crimes, and he hasn't physically endangered anybody. While Cooper's actions appal fans like myself, there's not much official authority to administer punishment.
That's where us fans come in.
No matter the fine and no matter how intensive the sensitivity training, Cooper won't fully understand the power of what he did until he sees just how many people were hurt by it. A loss of money and a few hours of counselling will be inconvenient, but hearing himself get booed across the country and watching fans protest his play will send the message home. Racism of that intensity will absolutely destroy a public image, and when stadiums erupt over Cooper taking a hard hit or dropping a pass, he'll fittingly be punished.
What's amazing to think about is that Cooper is only active with the Eagles because African-American wideout Jeremy Maclin is out for the season with a torn ACL. If Maclin's still healthy, he and Desean Jackson knock Cooper out from even being considered for reps. Pro football is 67% black, and Cooper will be vilified not by law or suspension but by being treated as harshly as he ostensibly treats those of a different skin tone.
How do you treat Riley Cooper in 2013? Perhaps he really is that ignorant and needs to be taught a lesson. Perhaps he's just that malicious of a person. Regardless, fans get to choose this consequence, not the league. More importantly, how do Cooper's black teammates treat him? Quarterback Michael Vick has already accepted Cooper's apology, but it's hard to believe that the rest of the team feels the exact same way. Racism shouldn't be reciprocated, and Cooper shouldn't receive death threats the way that he threatened African-Americans. But the chorus of boos he'll receive every week will remind him that there's no place for racism in an industry of hard-workers, role models and community leaders.