Riley Cooper Can't Use the N-Word — But Can Anybody?


Cell-phone video has surfaced showing Riley Cooper, a white player on the Philadelphia Eagles, angrily using a racial slur during a Kenny Chesney country music concert. The clip shows Cooper moments after being denied stage access by a security guard who happened to be black. Riley was visibly agitated as he said, "I will jump that fence and fight every n*gger here".

The response from the NFL and the Eagles organization was decisive. Cooper was fined, excused from preseason activities with his team, and has since publicly apologized. Condemnation has been widespread, while players around the league, sports commentators, and anyone with an internet connection weigh in on the question of whether Cooper’s actions are beyond redemption, or if he deserves forgiveness.  

On Saturday, former NFL player and Hall of Famer Deion Sanders got attention for his opinion, which included criticism for some of those pointing the finger at Cooper:

"[Cooper] said something under pressure that really told us what's inside of him. I can forgive him for that. But I cannot for one minute think that [those going after Cooper] have not said something in [their] home, in [their] workplace, at a club partying, or just among friends that [they] don't want to get out."

Sanders then said "it baffles [him] how African Americans can say [the word] to one another, but when the other race says it, [they] see a problem." Because Sanders said that he can "forgive" Cooper, I do not see his comments as a defense of Cooper saying the ugly slur. But Sanders' last sentence points to a continuing and necessary discussion within the black community. When, if ever, should the word be used? 

Before I answer that, I want to be clear that residue from multi-generational chattel slavery continues to plague black America in lots of truly meaningful ways. I find that some of the present day controversies simply around words and individual outbursts are overemphasized distractions from other, more challenging and substantive agendas for racial justice. 

However, the word "n*gger" continues to cause controversy because it remains one of the more obvious vestiges of America’s terrible racial history.  It is distinct in a category of words that are so ugly — like "b*tch" and "f*ggot" — that they can only be defined, and have their usage set, by the group of people most historically oppressed by it.  While some black leaders have staged burials, held protests against it, and generally view the word as a deeply offensive utterance, other segments of the black community have attempted to adopt and transform the word, using it casually, far removed from its original meaning. While that internal discussion rages on, those outside of the African American community must show respect, sensitivity and restraint. 

It’s really that simple, Deion. No, you still cannot say it, Donald Trump!  

For now, Riley Cooper will seek "sensitivity training," work to regain trust, and repair relationships with his teammates on the Eagles and colleagues around the league, of all races, who rightly find his words to be unacceptable.