Riley Cooper and Childhood Memories of Racism in Sports

9 Aug

By Chris Murray

For the Philadelphia Sunday Sun and the Chris Murray Report

Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was welcomed back  by his teammates a week after being caught on camera using a racial slur.  Photo  by Webster Riddick.

Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was welcomed back by his teammates a week after being caught on camera using a racial slur. Photo by Webster Riddick.

PHILADLEPHIA—Watching the fallout of Riley Cooper being caught on tape using the N-word and the series of apologies he made in the aftermath was something that hit me in a very personal way.

It was yet another example of how racism is so deeply woven into the American fabric that its almost as normal as celebrating the Fourth of July.  For the record, I believe Cooper is truly remorseful for his actions.

At Eagles camp on Tuesday, Cooper’s teammates, black and white, welcomed him to their joint practice with the New England Patriots. To his credit, Cooper made no excuses and told reporters that he didn’t want his teammates to forgive him. He wanted to earn their respect.

“I told them I don’t want you to forgive me because that puts the burden on you,” Cooper said. “I want it all on me. I told them that I apologize. They can tell it was from the heart and they know I’m not that kind of person.”

Cooper’s African-American teammates said they wanted to move on from this and they welcomed Cooper back. To be honest, it’s always a good thing to forgive, but forgetting is usually the hard part. That will come in time. To that end, Cooper should be allowed to turn the corner and be judged by his actions from this point forward.

Sometimes when African-Americans form friendships with white people there’s always this weird fear that somehow something like Cooper spewing out the N-word is going to come out, especially when folks get mad at each other for whatever reason.

The last year I played organized football was in 1976 when I was about 14-years-old. I was a grossly undersized, but quick running back in the Catonsville, Md. Midget League.  I was the only Black player on my team, the Vikings.

I didn’t really care about that because this is football. The only prejudice you should have is against the guy not wearing the same jersey as you.

Our first game of the season against the Jets, I was having a good game. I nearly ran back two punts and I was running the ball well from scrimmage, averaging about four or five yards per carry.

About midway through second quarter, I witnessed something I would never forget.  On an off tackle play I got hit by the Jets defensive tackle who was this big, bulky black kid—whom I’ll call Al.  After the whistle, there was a shoving match between the two of us.

As this is going on, one of my lineman (also our middle linebacker) whom we’ll call  John-comes to my rescue and proceeds to push the Black kid off me.  Just when the refs are separating the warring factions, my teammate John yells “Fuckin, Nigger!” to Al.

I was stunned. Part of me wanted to kick John’s ass because he didn’t have the right to say that to a brother. But at the same time, John was my teammate, I needed him to block for me.

I then glanced over at Al and he had this pained look on his face as the refs ushered him back to the huddle.

I don’t think that John and I spoke to each other again for the rest of that season unless it pertained to football. I mentioned it to my mother in passing, but I don’t recall how she reacted to it.

Since I was the only Black guy on the team, I noticed that the rest of my teammates went out of their way not to say or do anything that could be perceived as offensive. But as pervasive and ingrained as racial prejudice was in those days, it was bound to come out again.

About three weeks later, we were having a practice scrimmage against the Saints. Near the end of the practice, my Vikings were on defense. The Saints had this really fast running back, Mike, who was black and was killing us on the sweep.

On the last play of the scrimmage, John, whom I mentioned earlier, was playing linebacker and I was playing free safety.  When Mike was running a sweep to his left and our right, John and I were waiting for him. John had his arms around his legs and I hit Mike up top with the most vicious hit I’ve ever delivered.

Without using my helmet, my shoulder was planted into his chest and I knocked him to the ground. When I peeled off him, I noticed that Mike was in pain and had tears in his eyes. I crushed his ass, I thought to myself.

As I walked back to the huddle, I was fired up because I hit that kid hard. For a few fleeting seconds, I felt like I was Mel Blount, Mike Curtis, Donnie Schell and Gary Fencik all rolled into one.

But the euphoria of the hit quickly receded into the evening shadow because Billy, another one of my white teammates said: “Wow, did you see how Chris hit that ni- ,.”

Before he could get out the “igger” part, my teammates descended upon and told him to pipe down.  Ironically, it was John, who used the N-word earlier in the season, leading the way to tell our teammate not to use that word in front of me.

As I think about it, I just shake my head.

Those incidents from my youth made it difficult for me to have friendships with white people for a long time because I wondered when the next “N-word” or any other form of racial slur was going to drop.

Which brings us back to Cooper and the Eagles.  I hope that Cooper’s counseling is successful and that what happened at the Kenny Chesney concert will be a teachable moment for him.  But I know that there are more than a few African-American players who may never get past it, and I can understand why.

That’s because when the word “nigger,” comes out of a white person’s mouth, the intent is to harm.  It’s an evil word that cuts at the very humanity of African-Americans.

And before you say “But I hear black people use it all of the time toward each other,” don’t. I have my issues with it being perceived as a term of “endearment” among blacks because, again, it cuts at our humanity.

It also shows just how much more racism must be cut from the American fabric in order to help us move forward.

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