Riley Cooper set the airwaves and video players on fire yesterday, when it was revealed that he had dropped a racial slur in a heated argument with a security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert in June. The video, of course, makes running and hiding an impossibility, and Cooper immediately apologized while the Eagles announced he would be fined an undisclosed amount.
Sporting history in the United States is linked with several prominent racial issues. A search of the last twenty-five years for “racist slur” and the NFL reveals that almost half of the articles are dealing with the use of the Redskins name. While it may seem this issue has grown, there are more words being written about everything – that issue has always been present and accounted for over the last quarter century. Most of the other articles deal with fan interaction and accusations of players being subjected to maltreatment in the form of slurs directed at them.
It is relatively rare for a racial slur to come out within the confines of the game, at least one the public hears about. In 2000, Sports Illustrated ran an article about Bill Romanowski which included a reference that he used the n-word to describe having to “go up against the [black guys].” It was an accusation that Romanowski vehemently denied, and unlike Cooper’s situation, it was based on word of mouth. At the end of the 1992 season, Jets cornerback Erik McMillan accused referee Larry Nemmers of uttering a racial slur while separating players from an argument, something that Nemmers also denied. In 1993, Rod Woodson accused Carl Pickens of making a racial slur involving Woodson’s wife, who was white.
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen got caught up in an insensitive remark that prompted outcry before the Super Bowl in January of 1990.
“Those guys have got a great owner,” he said. “They’ve got God for a quarterback. They’ve got a Chinaman who plays wide receiver whose feet never touch the ground.”
Bowlen, when asked what he meant, said “‘That Chinese guy. What’s his name? Rice?” referring to Jerry Rice. [Associated Press, January 17, 1990]
The most notable incident, of course, involved Kerry Collins at the end of 1997 training camp. Reports of the details in various papers were inconsistent, with rumors that Collins got punched in the eye by lineman Norberto Davidds-Garrido, a player of Hispanic decent, and then also uttered a racial epithet that offended teammates, including wide receiver Mushin Muhammad. (The NYT said the punch from Davidds-Garrido was on accident during ‘play wrestling.’) Muhammad denied that he was the target of a slur, but acknowledged that Collins used the n-word.
“Obviously, the situation is a big deal,” Muhammad said. “But I think it was resolved within the team.”
In a statement released by the Panthers, Collins said: “While unintentional and not intended in a malicious manner, I understand that my remarks were inappropriate and do not reflect my feelings in any way.
“I made a serious mistake and regret my action.” ["Panthers receiver disputes reports", St. Petersburg Times (Florida), August 27, 1997]
Collins had his jaw broken on a helmet-to-helmet hit in the next preseason game – coincidentally by Bill Romanowski – and missed the start of the season. When he returned, he struggled mightily, leading the league in interceptions the year after the Panthers had reached the conference championship game. Alcohol issues and partying were at the heart of Collins’ issues; teammates had confronted him the previous year, and both incidents reportedly happened while drinking. [Peter King wrote extensively about it years later, when Collins was the QB of the Giants.]
That incident spelled the beginning of the end for Collins in Carolina. He would be released the next season and play briefly in New Orleans. He eventually signed with the Giants, after going through rehab. GM Ernie Accorsi, in his book THE GM: The Inside Story of a Dream Job and the Nightmares that go with It, talked about the chances that the Giants took on Collins at the time. Accorsi called the incident in 1997 a “misguided attempt at team bonding that only made sense in a haze of alcohol.” He also talked about his decision to give Collins a chance after having extensive knowledge of his background: ”Ive always believed that if a kid was ever a good kid, he can be a good kid again. If he was never a good kid, don’t waste your time.”
Collins re-vitalized his career in New York, moving into a starting role and going to the Super Bowl after the 2000 season. He would go on to play until the 2011 season, when he came out of retirement to try to fill in for an injured Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. At the end of his career, he reflected on those early troubles.
“I’m proud of my career, and there are some good life lessons in it. I don’t regret anything. I wish I had handled things with more maturity in Carolina. But it’s also hard to regret an experience that ultimately made you better.”
Riley Cooper is not a former top five pick at quarterback, and does not have the length of rope that entails. Collins, though, wore through that, and came back after hitting bottom. Cooper will have to gain the respect of teammates. There are differences–Coopers was directed in anger as a slur at someone, Collins was reportedly said in jest while drunk but did not go over well. Collins’ comments were directed in the presence of teammates. Cooper will probably be associated with this for a long time, as articles for years referenced Collins. He will have to determine whether it defines him as a person, or if he can build on it and make amends through actions, not words. The passage of time can heal all.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]