There are two legitimately fascinating stories hiding in ESPN's "Hot Read" on the redemption of Riley Cooper, and neither of them are told. One is buried and glossed over, the other ignored altogether, in favor of a trite and vaguely insulting tale of overcoming self-inflicted adversity.
First, the bad, because when that's all stripped away, we can get to how the Riley Cooper saga offers a truly excellent big picture. We've been down this road before, but I think we need to come up with a definition of what adversity actually is. Cooper did not lose a close family member. He did not suffer a debilitating injury. He did not get caught up in the wrong crowd. He was not the victim of a crime. He was not a victim. He was drunk at a concert, and a security guard wouldn't let him backstage, so he threatened to "fight every nigger here," and it was filmed, and the video ended up online. Only that very last is Cooper's cross to bear—the fact that the world saw.
You do not get brownie points for climbing out of a hole you dug. You don't get consideration for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award for publicly being a shithead, then not being a shithead in public for a while. And you definitely don't get graded on a curve for being a white receiver, because of which, says Jason Avant, "Riley experiences more racism than anybody." (Really? More than the security guard on an hourly wage who got called a "nigger" by the millionaire white athlete?)
If we can agree on this one postulate—that Riley Cooper doesn't deserve plaudits for not being beaten up by his teammates—then we can move on to the stuff in Elizabeth Merrill's story that actually sheds light on 21st century sports.
The first is that there is actually a playbook for a team dealing with one of its players causing controversy. The Eagles' front office, upon learning of the Cooper video (and presumably swearing loudly for a few minutes), were candid about their dilemma: They were desperate for receivers, and needed to figure out a way to live with Cooper. So they activated their contingency plan for minimizing damage. They reached out to Philadelphia's black leaders, including the mayor and district attorney, to ask how Cooper might make things right. They brought in Harry Edwards, who appears to be sort of the Winston Wolfe of the sports world, the man you call when you need a problem to go away.
Edwards is the most fascinating character in this whole mess. A former Black Panther who helped organize the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, he's a professor of sports sociology at Berkeley, and works with the 49ers. He was already known to Chip Kelly—the then-Oregon coach brought him in when LeGarrette Blount punched out an opponent after a game.
What exactly Edwards does as a fixer isn't gone into in detail—I'd love to know more!—but it was at his insistence that the Eagles did not suspend Cooper. It was also Edwards's idea that Cooper head home to Florida, and this was probably the single smartest thing Cooper and the Eagles could have done. The news cycle will consume itself when the fuel runs out. Without quotes, without photos, and without any news on Cooper, the firestorm dwindled to manageable levels. (See the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito disaster, which hasn't garnered a thinkpiece in a month.)
So Cooper came back, and he played football, and then, about a month into the season, he started playing good football. And fans cheered! And teammates said all was cool. And that, according to Merrill, is Riley Cooper's redemption, even if the locker room quietude was just a symptom of on-field success. This is really the Eagles' redemption, and Nick Foles is its agent.
Therein lies our ultimate lesson: Fans and teammates are remarkably good at separating a player's personality from his profession, maybe even moreso than media members. This isn't just a sports thing; R. Kelly's album release has been hit with a blowback over his legal history, but beyond some minor cognitive dissonance, it's entirely possible to enjoy the music of someone who's morally repugnant. Likewise, if Riley Cooper can do his job well, his teammates can live with having him around, and his team's fans can set aside misgivings about rooting for a guy who got drunk and said something racist.
This was nailed at the very end of the article, by—who else—Harry Edwards.
"Chemistry is not about liking each other," Edwards said. "Chemistry is about respecting each other, trusting each other and knowing that you can depend on each other to get their jobs done..."
That's really all there is to it. The biggest flaw in Merrill's story is the implication that Cooper needed redemption: His value lies entirely in his skills, and as a successful receiver on a playoff-bound team, his value is unqualified.