During today's Dan Patrick Show, Warren Sapp recalled the time Richie Incognito called him a nigger during a game. In this short clip, Sapp evokes much of the complexity that surrounds the Incognito controversy and the use of the n-word in general.
In the video, Dan Patrick seems a little taken aback by how casually Sapp recounts the events without enmity. Sapp even chuckles at how stupid Incognito must have been to think his obvious bait would provoke him. "Is that all you got?" he remembers responding.
As Sapp points out, Incognito was simply using a tactic many football players have resorted to in hopes of getting a cheap penalty: Say something so offensive to your opponent that he will punch you in the face, and then reap the benefits when he's penalized or kicked out of the game.
Every black person has experience with the n-word being used in this way—as a cheap insult meant only to rile. Many of us, myself included, have responded in those moments as Sapp did, brushing it off with a "Is that the best you can do?" In the spectrum of n-word uses that worry me, Riley Cooper's use—in private, among other whites, stemming from a specific interracial interaction—is much more troubling.
Then again, I think Cooper is probably a much better guy than Incognito. Cooper's response has been as good as you could hope for from a person who realized they said something racist and is horrified by that fact. Incognito's broader behavior on the other hand—well, it does not similarly assuage my doubts about his fundamental character.
Both Cooper and Incognito were of course wrong to use the n-word, but a difference lies in their motivations—Cooper possibly expressing a private belief whereas Incognito was seemingly seeking a tactical advantage. That context matters, even if it's only to classify someone as a racist, an asshole, or both.