For Riley Cooper, the 2013 season was one to remember. Although he reached new career highs in multiple receiving categories, the year started out in a very ugly fashion for the Philadelphia Eagles‘ wide receiver.
After a video went viral of Cooper impulsively using a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert in July, he fell into a morass of negative repercussions. These ranged from being ostracized by his teammates, and vilified by the league. No suspensions or fines were given out by the NFL, but the damage was already done.
Although Cooper apologized profusely for his actions, some teammates felt like he showed his true colors from the incident, and it looked as if they would never truly forgive him.
However, through counseling and atonement, Cooper harbored a large degree of accountability, and in turn has become a better person. This was evident throughout the locker room, as many players recognized his new decorum. In an interview with ESPN’s Elizabeth Merrill, center Jason Kelce noted, “There’s no doubt he handles himself differently in public; he handles himself differently when he’s around people. I think he has to. His whole life changed in a matter of months.”
Fans may remember the slur as the first thing that comes to mind when they hear Cooper’s name, but there is a silver lining to this plot. Fans have learned to forgive. Sure, winning helps fans forget negative actions, just ask Michael Vick. However, despite the success of Cooper and the team as a whole, there was much more done on Cooper’s part than apologizing over airwaves.
Playing in a sports town as unforgiving as Philadelphia, it takes more than a PR team to rebuild an athlete’s image. There was only one type of person who could mitigate this situation, and that person had to be in the locker room.
Now-former Eagles quarterback Vick was one of the catalysts in helping Cooper earn back the trust and respect of his teammates. Instead of exacerbating the situation, Vick brought the team together and turned this imbroglio into a learning curve that helped bring the team together.
“I knew how guys were thinking,” said Vick, who is no stranger to ignominy through his involvement in a dog-fighting ring. “I overheard guys talking. Some of the things, I just didn’t like what I was hearing. I knew it had to be corrected. I just felt like I was obligated to make sure that this locker room stayed intact.
“What we went through brought us closer together. I think it brought us closer as a team. Once we got through that, we knew we could get through anything. I think he’s definitely become a better player because of the issue. Maybe it was a way for him to get the best out of himself.”
Cooper knew he was on thin ice, and cooperated to the fullest extent of the wishes of the Eagles’ organization. He paid an undisclosed fine to the team, and underwent sensitivity training.
This new demeanor is no act by Cooper. He knew he had to change his psyche or he would face bounties on his head every Sunday for the rest of his career. This was one of the main constituents in the complete 180-degree turnaround that Cooper made. However, the key ingredient was the backlash. It was unfortunate and resulted in scrutiny and death threats, but it was a necessity.
Cooper has carried the “hothead” label since he grew up in Clearwater, Fla., where he was suspended three games in high school for blurting out obscenities at officials. Cooper was also charged for criminal mischief for punching a hole in a car window in high school, and the injury he sustained kept him out of his senior season of baseball.
According to former teammate Jason Avant, ever since he was a rookie, in the heat of competition, Cooper was “liable to say anything.” He was heading down a dangerous path, and the racial slur was the ultimate coup de grace.
After almost a year since the incident, Cooper has become a humble advocate for penalizing racial slurs by athletes. He has earned back the respect of his teammates, coaches, fans and players alike, and can now return to building a career.