Like it or not, NFL players are role models -- that is the price they pay for their million-dollar contracts and endorsement deals. As such, there must have been much handwringing on the part of both league executives and the ownership and management of the Philadelphia Eagles over wide receiver Riley Cooper being caught using "the N-word" -- one of the ugliest, most shameful of racial slurs. After all, the NFL sees itself as much a symbol of America as the flag, mom and apple pie. And Cooper's appalling behavior is hardly befitting America's national pastime, let alone America itself.
Up to this point the league office has left it to the Eagles to mete out punishment (a fine, but no suspension, although Cooper took a leave from the team to "seek counseling"). Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has jumped into the fray, saying that he believes that a fine is not sufficiently harsh for the offense, adding that if a city official had uttered the epithet he would have been subject to suspension or firing.
While it is not for me to weigh in on the question of proper punishment, I do feel that we ought to commend all those who rang the alarm bells that put the national spotlight on this issue. We are living in a time when our discourse can be called anything but civil. For examples we need look no further than the media or the halls of Congress. Those holding Riley Cooper accountable understand not only that words can demean and cause emotional distress, but they also can set a tone that leads to violence -- particularly when a word itself harkens back to a time of persecution and violence. It comes as no surprise that African-Americans -- as should Americans of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds -- find the "N-word" abhorrent.
However, if all we do is make an example of Riley Cooper for using the "N-word" an opportunity will be lost. We need to make clear that there is no hierarchy of slurs, with some completely forbidden, while others are tolerated. In our society there must be no place for derogatory epithets of any kind; we must not countenance language intended to demean anyone based upon race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.
It is hardly uncommon for football players to be overheard using slurs to refer to homosexuals (the "F-word") or women (the "B-word"). It would not be unreasonable to link the general acceptance of that type of demeaning language with the violence that occurs all too regularly in this country against gays and women.
There is simply no place for such language on the playing fields and in the locker rooms of the NFL; nor should there be anywhere else in America. "The Riley Cooper affair" provides a pivotal opportunity for the National Football League to take the lead on this issue by getting its own house in order -- guiding its players, coaches, and other league personnel to not only understand, but model the importance of eliminating all forms of demeaning, disparaging language. Going forward the NFL, in partnership with the Players' Association, ought to adopt a zero tolerance policy for any type of hateful slur. In so doing, they can together be a force for good in helping American society permanently and categorically reject ignorance and prejudice of all kinds.