Cooper's words demanded NFL action

Instead commissioner was mostly silent and left penalty for player's racially charged remark merely up to team

Speech isn't free in the NFL.

It routinely comes with a cost. Players and coaches get fined for criticizing officials. Ask Brian Urlacher. The retired Bears linebacker probably still begrudges the $20,000 the league made him cough up in 2008 for berating officials against the Falcons. Such discipline carries the message that words still matter in a game America loves because of violent actions.

Forget any idealistic notions about free expression in the NFL too. Bears wide receiver Earl Bennett wore orange spikes and paid a total of $15,000 in fines. Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe displayed a patch promoting Ray Guy for the Hall of Fame and the penalty was $5,250.

The NFL by-laws aren't the U.S. Constitution. Precedent exists for the league to legislate behavior on and off the field of the men privileged enough to represent the shield.

So how can NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell justify taking no action against Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper, who was caught on video making a vile racial slur?

Cooper, in an online video posted by CrossingBroad.com, was attending a Kenny Chesney concert when he threatened a security guard using the N-word. The Eagles fined Cooper a paltry $37,000 and announced Friday he was excused from all team activities to receive counseling. Goodell, citing the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement's limitations on punishment, went no further than calling Cooper's outburst "obviously wrong, insensitive and unacceptable'' in an ESPN interview.

"I'm glad to see the club stepped up and took a decisive action quickly, and that's the important part of this," Goodell said.

Rule-abiding or not, Goodell's full explanation sounded tone-deaf and too much like a lawyer afraid to exercise his right to act in the best interests of the game. Suffice to say the Cooper example won't come up in any discussion of the far-reaching power of a commissioner committed to improving the NFL's integrity. We can see the opportunity for a teaching moment on race relations in America and still want Goodell to hold Cooper accountable for his racist rant. It doesn't have to be either-or. Accountability need not lack empathy.

Would the players union for a league that is 70 percent African-American really have challenged Goodell if he had suspended Cooper for making a comment that hurt the league's reputation more than any insults directed at referees? Goodell likely would have been more celebrated than castigated.

Not that anybody should expect to see Cooper on Sundays this fall, unless he is repenting.

Cooper the player will struggle ever being accepted in an NFL locker room again by resentful teammates who always will wonder and football executives who can't afford the risk. Would you invest nearly a seven-figure salary in a role player whose indelible past makes him potentially divisive?

Cooper the person deserves a chance to prove he really was contrite in his apology and worthy of the support Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, of all people, offered. Without open-mindedness that could lead to education, Cooper risks retreating back into the dark, dangerous thought patterns that allowed his bigotry to fester. Vick, whether genuine or contrived, expressed the right idea. Nobody gains a deeper understanding of anything by reacting as rashly to Cooper as Cooper did to the security guard. Narrow minds can broaden; people can change — especially young people.

The rest of the story has little to do with football or the implications for Cooper's career and Eagles coach Chip Kelly's first season. The focus now shifts to trying to understand why a 25-year-old professional athlete whose world was bigger thanks to football still carried prejudice in his heart that projected him as the smallest player in the league.

What happens next depends on Cooper, whose biggest contribution this season could be causing everyone in NFL cities to consider how many of their own biases are a few drinks away from being a YouTube embarrassment. He needs to disappear for awhile until genuine anger subsides but, whenever he resurfaces, can turn the most negative experience of his life into a positive. He can speak out in ways that make people examine why racial bias still exists in locker rooms, living rooms and boardrooms. He can force us all to ask ourselves whether sports really do make us as colorblind as we want to believe in a country where racism remains a problem beyond a drunk guy at a concert.

Around Bourbonnais, more than anything coach Marc Trestman hammers home the point about the Bears becoming better men. The football culture mythologizes the idea of being a man. Now would be a great time for Cooper to demonstrate whatever that means. He can rise up and turn this adversity into an opportunity to make a statement everybody will remember for the right reasons.

Like Goodell should have done.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

CHICAGO

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