Brotherly Shove

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Maybe Chip Kelly is right.  Maybe the fight between Cary Williams and Riley Cooper at Eagles practice on Thursday had nothing to do with Cooper’s infamous remarks from earlier this summer.

What we do know, now more than a month after the release of his drunken video at a Kenny Chesney concert, is that Riley Cooper is still a Philadelphia Eagle.  The team didn’t cave to the pressure applied by those who wanted to see Cooper suspended, released or otherwise eviscerated beyond a fine.  Whether said inaction was motivated by the sincere interest in supporting a decent guy who’d had a momentary lapse of judgment or by the self-serving need to hold onto a warm body after already losing one of their starting wide receivers is up for debate (although the fact he’s now listed at the top of the depth chart might tip you).

Here’s another thing I know: this ain’t over.  Oh, sure, Cooper’s been back practicing with his teammates for weeks now without incident (well, at least until Thursday).  He’s run onto fields both home and away for preseason games and whatever emotional scars he’s developed from the boos directed at him haven’t been severe enough to land him on the PUP list.  Anticlimactic, maybe, but the melodrama seems to have run its course, the damage contained for Cooper and the Eagles.  But don’t be fooled: this ain’t over.

The story may resurface as soon as this Monday night.  At some point, whether early in September or early this winter, Cooper – just like any other football-carrying runner – will take a shot as he attempts to navigate through an NFL secondary.  Statistically speaking, the likelihood of the player who delivers the hit being African American is high.  And that’s when things will get interesting.

If that player is, say, Bernard Pollard or James Harrison or any other reputed ne’er-do-well, the league office will be off the hook to some degree.  But what if it’s a free safety with dark skin and no track record of perceived over-aggression?  In a vacuum, it’s easy to say objectivity will prevail, but if the league does (as I expect they will) rule with an ironic lack of prejudice, there will be fallout.

Let’s say it’s Week One in DC.  In the game’s first half, Mike Vick attempts a pass to Cooper over the middle.  The ball hits Cooper’s extended hands just as rookie Redskins safety Bacarri Rambo’s helmet meets Cooper’s.  The hit isn’t terribly severe, but it’s enough to daze Cooper, who walks gingerly to the sideline.  Rambo gets up without a glance in Cooper’s direction and returns to the defensive huddle.

That night, football fans will see the hit 17 times on the post-game highlight shows.  Tuesday morning columns and radio talk shows will buzz with debate about whether Rambo should be punished and what the fine and/or suspension should be.  And then, the league will issue its penalty.  There won’t be a choice, really.  Even if it’s clear Rambo didn’t go vigilante, the league’s rules will require some measure of discipline.  To not do so would imply the league condones targeting Cooper, and that can’t happen.  Then again, by penalizing the offending defender, the NFL will be accused (irrationally?) of protecting the white player and mistreating the black player.

In spite of Cooper’s aggressive tone on that video, a Cooper apologist might point out no one actually suffered bodily harm.  Ask fried food’s matron saint, Paula Deen, if that matters.  Likewise, consider the threats made not just at George Zimmerman but at the jurors on his trial.  If there’s that much cynicism about the American judicial system, can there be any doubt pro football’s governing body will be subject to criticism for fining a black man who hits the white man who’s on video threatening to injure black people?

Bottom line: the NFL won’t be able to punish that first guy who belts Cooper without also giving a public explanation.  The paradox of fining men who play a violent game for being violent will never be more at issue.  If it happens, the NFL will have to choose its words carefully.  Just like Riley Cooper should have at that concert.

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