The Eagles set a flawed precedent with Riley Cooper. Now they have to honor it with DeSean Jackson.

·NFL columnist

What about Riley Cooper?

This was the troubling box that Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie constructed for himself in 2013. The one where Cooper, who is white, was caught on video uttering a racial epithet about a Black security guard at a country music concert, then faced little NFL consequence beyond a monetary fine and a lifetime of Google infamy.

For years, the memory of Cooper’s disgraceful moment remained tucked under one of those times sure have changed categories in the NFL. Surely in today’s environment, with so much energy expended on tearing down racial tropes in America, the most hateful words and messages wouldn’t be tolerated, let alone diffused by apologies under the guise of ignorance. That might have flown in 2013, when Cooper unbelievably suffered little more than a financial slap on the wrist and a one-week break from training camp. But in 2020? He’d be fired in minutes. No chance that could be repeated or tolerated by an NFL team.

Or more accurately, no chance that would be tolerated by any team except the Eagles, who were shortsighted enough to construct the Riley Cooper Box in 2013, believing they’d never have to inhabit it again. Yet here we are in 2020, with Philadelphia climbing back inside the box with DeSean Jackson, who not only posted part of a despicable racial screed to his 1.4 million Instagram followers, but did it while believing (inaccurately) that it had come from a genocidal maniac named Adolf Hitler.

Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson has made multiple apologies after posting on social media anti-Semitic messages. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)
Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson has made multiple apologies after posting on social media anti-Semitic messages. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

The same Hitler who is the last stop on humanity’s Worst-Person-In-The-History-Of-Earth train. The Hitler who massacred roughly 6 million Jews in the Holocaust and was responsible for triggering the deadliest world war in history. That Hitler. He’s the guy DeSean Jackson apparently thought was the right candidate to expound on a message about the legitimate inequality and daily struggle that faces Black Americans.

From all the people in history that Jackson could have chosen to drive home his message, he picked a passage that he believed came from Hitler? And simultaneously, he selected a passage that framed the vantage through a lens that vilified another ethnic group. At best, it’s ignorance beyond bounds. At worst, this is the kind of Instagram post that we’d see from a hate group.

Jackson’s words being a matter of hate versus ignorance isn’t going to be a popular debate with Eagles fans. But it’s the unvarnished truth. And it is delivered the only way it should be: without factoring in some warped priorities about how fast Jackson is or what he does for the Eagles when he tears the top off a defense. Take the words at their face value and consider how they impact the people who read them.

With that in mind, I called an NFL source who has had a longtime relationship with Jackson. Someone who has known him for much of his career and who is also Jewish. I wanted to know what he thought about this whole ordeal. Is this who Jackson is? Am I missing something? Is this just a simple mistake?

Here’s the only thing the source would say, in a tone of deep dismay:

“I really don’t even want to talk about it. I can’t even talk about it. I’d appreciate if you can respect that.”

This person was undeniably hurt. That’s the thing that’s not really getting discussed here, largely because NFL players and others inside this bubble haven’t said much about what Jackson posted. What Jackson said hit some people hard. We’re not talking about simple outrage or fury, which are clearly the most common emotions in social media circulation. There’s a difference between outrage and hurt. And it matters.

The people hit directly by Jackson are generally in such a minority that it doesn’t resonate like Cooper’s racial epithet in 2013. There’s no escaping that if this was another Cooper incident, the reaction today wouldn’t be the same. He’d be an ex-NFL player tomorrow, if not yesterday. That’s the rub with anti-Semitism in sports. The backlash over this kind of thing among athletes is dialed down. LeBron James posts a social media message about “getting that Jewish money” and we accept the follow-up apology and move on. We shake our heads and respond with a shrug rather than a balled-up fist.

Jackson? More of the same. You need only to look at the debates breaking out on social media to see the same justification over and over.

What about Riley Cooper?

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper speaks with members of the media after practice at the NFL football team's training facility, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper speaks with members of the media after practice at the NFL football team's training facility, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

That’s what Lurie created in 2013. A bad decision that laid the foundation for a flawed justification. And now it’s back to stalk the organization. Albeit in a much smaller way than what happened with Cooper. We’ll get to that in a moment. But before we do, we should recognize our time in history.

This isn’t 2013. A lot has happened in seven years. Even more has happened in seven months. We’re in a moment when there’s a hyper-awareness of the impact words and actions have on the people who absorb them. And what Jackson did — whether out of ignorance or malice — matters.

We face a litany of questions about why we rank our dismay based on the person who is making the statement. Do we have a sliding scale of alarm? Is it OK for one person or group of people to repeat what is clearly a form of racism? Are some tropes OK while others are not? Is media leeway doled out in some kind of mysterious system that adjudicates the math of what is acceptable racism?

If so, that’s a massive indictment on all of us. You and me. The writer, the reader, the fan, the executive, the player and everyone else in this orbit. Either everything is OK when it comes to racist messaging or none of it is OK. This should be elementary deduction, not astrophysics. And for the record, it’s the former and not the latter.

None of it is OK. Just like it wasn’t in 2013, when the Eagles made the ill-fated decision to keep Cooper and just like now, when they’re leaning into the same equation (and precedent) to keep Jackson. Again, we’ll get to that.

Before we do, a little message about sports and anti-Semitism. In general, it rarely gets much more than a raised eyebrow and a momentary blip of outrage. People almost never lose jobs. Few in prominent positions throw up messages of solidarity or showcase discomfort on their social media accounts. And that’s likely because people don’t have the relationships or frame of reference to identify with the aggrieved. The NFL’s Jewish fraternity is unquestionably small. Former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, who is Jewish, may have encapsulated it best in a video on his Twitter account Tuesday:

“When these things happen, there’s just not as much outrage,” Schwartz said. “We are a small group of people, relatively speaking, to everyone else. And there’s just not a lot of outrage when it comes to anti-Semitism. People do not understand what anti-Semitism actually is, in my opinion. It might stem from just general hatred of Jews. I don’t know what DeSean Jackson feels. I’m not going to take it off of one social media post. Obviously it doesn’t look very good, about the way he feels toward Jews with people that he’s followed and the other social media posts he’s shared. But there seems to be a general lack of outrage when it comes to anti-Semitic comments from athletes. … I don’t know why that is. I do think it’s because we are a small group of people. We generally don’t defend ourselves well at times. It’s been going on forever.”

When it comes to Jackson, the simple truth is this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill passage. It was taken from a piece of deeply disturbing anti-Semitic work and then it was aimed at a significant number of Instagram followers. Whether it was a willfully anti-Semitic act or not doesn’t change the content of what Jackson co-signed. He highlighted a passage that is no better than the litany of hateful messaging and division we lament from the highest levels of American politics to the lowest levels of social media discourse.

I say this knowing that Jackson has apologized (twice) for posting it and claiming ignorance to what he was repeating. But I also say this knowing that he’s a 33-year-old man who has vast resources at his disposal and who should know better than to repeat something like this. This isn’t an ignorant child. It’s a college-educated multimillionaire with a vast following. His words and messages carry weight. And he should know that.

Moreover, the Eagles should know that, too. But as much as some things have changed since 2013, one thing hasn’t: When you create a precedent and don’t act on a player who reaches for an unforgivable racial epithet, you’ve set a standard that lingers. That’s what Lurie did in 2013. I’m not blaming general manager Howie Roseman because he wasn’t part of the equation that mishandled Cooper. But Lurie? As one former Eagles employee said Tuesday, what happened with Cooper was Lurie’s decision. He made the final call.

Not holding Cooper to a higher standard in 2013 was wrong. What he said was every bit the fireable offense that it is now. A racial epithet used to describe a Black man was unacceptable, whether Riley Cooper knew he was being recorded or not. But Lurie and then-head coach Chip Kelly set the standard of what was forgivable — even if it really wasn’t.

Seven years later, the decision echos. To the point that purposefully sending a message (incorrectly) espousing the sentiments of Adolf Hitler is somehow survivable in 2020. Even when it degrades one group of people to raise the plight of another.

We’re supposed to be past stomaching this kind of thing in 2020. Yet here the Eagles are, inside a despicable box built by a team owner who is apparently incapable of recognizing that there’s a difference between sticking to a flawed precedent or admitting a longstanding mistake.

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