Philadelphia Eagles  

 

Riley Cooper situation will force Eagles to embrace forgiveness

When video surfaced of Philadelphia Eagles receiver Riley Cooper using a racial slur at a Kenny Chesney concert, it set off a firestorm of debate over how to best handle the situation -- and it seemed to sow the seeds of a potential locker-room rift.

Shortly after Cooper apologized, quarterback Michael Vick publicly forgave him. Running back LeSean McCoy, however, told NFL.com's Albert Breer that he was "losing a friend" in Cooper. From the outside, such opposing reactions might look like the makings of a perfect storm.

Wrong.

To understand why, one must first understand the culture of the professional athlete's locker room. This culture is unlike anything you could imagine. Nothing is held back; insults of all kinds are thrown around. Lines are crossed and feelings are hurt.

Ultimately, though, the players, who come from all over with different social backgrounds, understand that the team unit must be indivisible. And to get to that point, the players must be familiar with forgiveness and be willing to overcome differences and flaws to work together to achieve a common goal.

Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells explained this eloquently in the speech he gave at his enshrinement last weekend. "The only prerequisite for acceptance into that locker room is, you've got to be willing to contribute to the greater good, and if you are willing to do that you are accepted," Parcells said. "But if you're not, you are pretty much quickly rejected."

I once played on a team that had to deal with the fallout after one player slept with another player's wife. The two players involved were both productive starters who played on the same side of the ball; because they had to work together, the wronged party had to overcome the betrayal, as significant as it was.

When news of the affair spread around the locker room, one could practically smell the tension. In the end, though, I saw everyone move from shock to anger to reconciliation and, finally, to mercy. In the end, my teammates were able to play 17 weeks together because of forgiveness.

What is forgiveness? The best definition I've heard comes from Oprah Winfrey, who once said that "forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could be any different."

No one and nothing can change the past -- not Riley Cooper, not his apology. Yet, there seems to be an insatiable appetite for revenge with no mercy. The notion that Commissioner Roger Goodell should suspend Cooper or levy an additional fine on him -- after he was already fined by the team -- is vindictive.

While it's true that an inflammatory situation such as this must be met with intensity, it also demands sensitivity. The Eagles were right to fine Cooper and then excuse him from camp to focus on counseling, and they were right to bring him back to camp Tuesday. In a way, this situation should be treated like an injury; identify the issue, fix the problem area and begin rehabilitation.

Words are powerful, and the impact of the word that Cooper used, which reminds us of our country's horrific past, is far greater than that of a blindside hit. I truly believe that word should be eradicated, regardless of the speaker's ethnicity, because every time it's spoken, it is being given life.

However, to dwell on Cooper's derogatory outburst will only create bitterness, and bitterness is not what the Eagles need. They need to embrace forgiveness -- because without that, there will be no team.

Follow Akbar Gbajabiamila on Twitter @Akbar_Gbaja.

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