He said something awful and the world crumbled all around Chris Culliver, threatening to blot out every good thing he'd ever done and replace it with one word -- to be played on an endless loop any time the subject of Chris Culliver came up:
Homophobe homophobe homophobe ...
After he slurred gays during Super Bowl week, after the world fell on Chris Culliver, the 49ers cornerback had a choice to make: He could respond with the ego and cocksure attitude that comes easy to a professional athlete. Or he could respond with humility and remorse.
Culliver responded with humility and remorse. He responded like an absolute champ. Many will remember him for what he said five days before the Super Bowl, but some will remember him for what happened next -- when Chris Culliver grew up, reached out, used his act of bad to become a force for good.
Now it is Riley Cooper's turn.
The circumstances are not identical, and I'm not interested in examining which form of bigotry was worse -- the way Culliver said a gay teammate would not be welcome in his locker room, or the way Cooper used the N-word to describe some people he'd like to fight. Culliver made his comments on the radio, knowing the world would hear his wisdom. Cooper made his comments in June at a Kenny Chesney concert, not knowing that somebody was catching his slur on video, never dreaming the world would hear his comments seven weeks later.
Culliver slurred a large group worldwide, but gays are a small -- and still closeted -- segment of the NFL. Cooper slurred a group that comprises nearly 70 percent of the league.
What they said, and the inherent ramifications? Different.
What comes next? Similar.
Their initial reactions were similar, and not in the easy way that both said they were sorry. Golfer Sergio Garcia also said he was sorry after making a racist joke about Tiger Woods in May, and while he may have meant it -- I'm sure he did -- Garcia didn't respond with the abject humility or sorrow shown by Culliver in late January, or by Cooper this week.
Culliver quickly apologized through a team statement but decided that wasn't enough. He showed up at the next 49ers media availability and took every question thrown at him, apologizing and vowing to make amends. He promised to get involved with the LGBT community in San Francisco, and a month later he followed up on that. He spent a day in the Los Angeles offices of the Trevor Project, a national organization that offers crisis and suicide intervention for the LGBT community. Culliver has said he will be back. Based on his actions since late January, I believe him.
Cooper faces a different path, no doubt a tougher path. He said a word you can't say, he said it out of anger, and he said it with the belief that nobody outside a handful of people would ever know about it. That video was a peek into his psyche, and it wasn't pretty. Eagles teammate LeSean McCoy already has ripped Cooper, saying "I can't respect a guy like that."
This is how Cooper will be remembered. In a way, what happens next almost doesn't matter. Riley Cooper will be remembered as the NFL player who was caught on video saying the N-word in a way that cannot be explained away, and doing it in 2013, decades -- centuries? -- after it had become understood that a white person simply cannot say that.
Defend Riley Cooper? I can't. Wouldn't even try. Hell, part of me is nervous to write about this at all, because to write anything about a remark as racist as that one -- and to write in a way that can be construed as remotely sympathetic, even hopeful -- is dangerous for me.
But I am sympathetic. I watched video of Cooper meeting the media within hours of his video comments going viral, and I watched it with my finger hovering over the cursor, the cursor hovering over the "exit" link. Because this was hard to watch. Cooper's agony, his misery, were palpable. He deserved every ounce of discomfort, don't get me wrong. He's not the victim here, not some poor dude who got ratted out by a stranger with a cell phone. Riley Cooper screwed up in a virulent way.
But the video that came next, the video of him meeting the media and attacking himself before the media could attack first ... painful. Cooper knows what he did. He knows how bad that was. He knows what has become of his reputation. Repeatedly, it looked like he was close to tears.
Sorry he said those words and got caught? Sure he is. But sorry he said those words -- period? Yes, I think he is. Watch that video of Cooper and the media. Tell me what you see.
I saw Riley Cooper having a Chris Culliver moment. The world crumbling all around him, threatening to blot out every good thing he'd ever done and replace it with one word -- to be played on an endless loop any time the subject of Riley Cooper comes up:
Racist racist racist ...
Like Culliver, Cooper faced the world without ego or a cocksure attitude, but with humility, remorse. He vowed to understand more about what he had said and why he had said it, the Eagles saying he would "seek outside assistance" on that front. McCoy lashed out but quarterback Michael Vick reached out, showing Cooper the mercy that so many have shown Vick since his dogfighting conviction. Vick called Cooper "my teammate" and "my brother" and said "somehow we all have to find a way to get past it."
There is room here for Riley Cooper to grow. Maybe there cannot be sympathy, but there can be hope. The rest of his life awaits. He is just 25.
A few months older than Chris Culliver.