The reverberations of a white American professional athlete dropping an N-bomb in public are spreading far and wide, far beyond the Philadelphia Eagles and even the NFL.

Riley Cooper's teammates now know what's in his heart, and such awareness isn't diminished by his apology.

Cooper's racial slur unmasked his attitude to everyone in the NFL. That's germane insofar as 70 percent of those in his workplace are black.

More pointedly, the fourth-year receiver's behavior at a country singer's concert in June casts a degree of suspicion upon every white athlete whose racial attitudes are ambiguous. The black player unable to discern his white teammate's feelings through personal interaction is forced to wonder if he is high-fiving a bigot.

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper at NFL football training camp on July 31, 2013, in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper at NFL football training camp on July 31, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Philadelphia Daily News, Yong Kim)

Though some wonder that already -- and may even have concluded -- Cooper's outburst brings it into every locker room and clubhouse in the country, shoving many white players to a crossroads most would prefer to avoid: race.

They can attempt to distance themselves from Cooper and his disparaging comment, in which case they still might be under scrutiny from teammates.

They can remain silent on the issue, in which case they risk being perceived as having attitudes similar to that of Cooper.

They can cite as a defense "freedom of speech," in which case they almost certainly will be perceived as sympathizing with Cooper.


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They can out themselves, acknowledging their own bigotry, whether they have accepted it but sell out their convictions for a bloated paycheck, or whether they continue to struggle with an integrated workplace designed to be committed to a single cause.

The ultimate pro accepts there are differences in every workplace and, not forced to live with teammates, can overlook them during the hours on the job.

But the progressive leader reaches out and participates in discussion by addressing the link between race relations and teamwork, then that between teamwork and basic humanity, then that between basic humanity and an evolved society. This theory is not new to sports; the late coach Bill Walsh routinely leaned on some variation of it.

Let's be real: Not all racial and ethnic walls disappear with the ease apparent in the genuine affection between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, or between Torii Hunter and Mike Trout, much less the 1960s relationship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, which resulted in the dramatized TV movie "Brian's Song."

Yet far more sports stories convey racial/ethnic harmony than discord. Having entered hundreds of locker rooms and clubhouses, I've experienced black and white athletes for whom skin color is irrelevant, those for whom it is a distinguishing characteristic and those for whom it only proves they are indiscriminately uncivil.

I've had sports figures, black and white, pull me aside for serious discussion of racial matters.

Most athletes, like most members of society, give off a distinct vibe that reveals their racial attitude. Sometimes that vibe is visceral, though that does not appear to be the case with Cooper, as some teammates clearly were shocked by his comments.

Let's remember, though, Cooper did not seek infamy. Rather, he was exposed into it. He did not become a bigot in June. Not until after his outburst went public in late July was his sleeping and eating disrupted.

Cooper was outed by someone, perhaps appalled by his behavior, whose audio-video recording captured him dropping the N-bomb at a Kenny Chesney concert in Philly. Somebody, somewhere, will blame the person or the camera.

To get fired up about the ubiquity of cell-phone cameras, or issue warnings about the dangers of being a fool in public, or even advise racists to keep their views under cover would imply the problem is not racist behavior but the revelation of it. Tactical silence can be a polite replacement for the old hood and robe.

To scrape away the hateful skin of America's inglorious past, shouldn't we go deeper? Shouldn't we treat the disease instead of its symptoms?

Sport is supposed to be a vehicle that eradicates barriers. It's all for one, one for all, a meritocracy where talent trumps bias. To place color before winning is to make winning secondary at best.

Three weeks after the controversial George Zimmerman acquittal, the issue of racism in America is back on the front burner because a pro athlete's racial slur went public. A fifth-round draft pick with 10 starts over three NFL seasons suddenly is a subject of debate -- and can influence chemistry within every team in American sport.

Once again, sport is the laboratory of social experiment. Once again, sports figures are perfectly positioned for imperative dialogue regarding the dinosaur in the room and the cloud over our landscape.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/1montepoole.