I’m in the seventh grade, in music class with Mr. Watts. I’m one of 10 students standing in front of the class, singing my part in a repetitive, 10-stanza song. You know, where with each stanza you add a couplet, and then sing it all the way back.
My couplet is “Powdered wig, big fat pig.” My problem is that Mano is standing next to me, whispering in my ear, “Powdered wig, big fat Denise.” This is a terribly cruel thing to say about Denise. She is the overweight seventh-grader sitting right in front of us. But nonetheless, it makes me laugh. I giggle through my line four times, maybe five. Each time, just before I sing, Dennis whispers the degrading put-down in my ear.
And somewhere in the middle of the song, I open my mouth and belt out, “Powdered wig, big fat Denise!” I mean, really loud. Everybody erupts in gales of laughter. That is, everybody but Denise and Mr. Watts.
Once in my elementary school lifetime I received swats with a wooden paddle. And this was that time. I’m a strident opponent of corporal punishment, yes. But even I, looking back, really understand why the powers-that-were in those days thought I deserved a whupping.
As God is my judge, I didn’t have any intention to say it publicly. I was stunned and ashamed. Yes, I confess I was making ugly sport of a human being. And enjoying it. But there’s a line — a big, wide, solid line — between entertaining my dark side in private and the audacity to parade my unlovely thoughts in public.
Which brings me to pro football player Riley Cooper of the Philadelphia Eagles, who, on June 8, hanging with friends at a Kenny Chesney concert, allegedly agitated about an interaction with security, expressed his displeasure with a racial slur. In the 44 years since I publicly slurred Denise, we have constructed a world where the line between private and public has more or less disappeared. Cameras are everywhere. And Cooper’s ugliness went viral on the Internet.
So, is Riley Cooper an evil racist? Did he reveal some terrible darkness that has always lain hidden in his heart? Or was he merely a slightly (or significantly) inebriated doofus, caught in a culture of voyeurism stalking us all with cameras filming scenes that, in years gone by, would have never seen the light of day?
Teammate Michael Vick spoke of forgiveness. No surprise to me. He who is forgiven much forgives much. Michael turned in his “condemnation card” a long time ago.
Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin was an opportunist. That is, he took the opportunity to be humble and sage. In a speech that lit an eternal flame of respect in my heart for Irvin, the former player affirmed that Cooper’s behavior was wrong and intolerable, accepted Cooper’s apology, and then said:
“But I go through all kinds of emotions. I want to self-indict. Because I’m guilty of using that word when I shouldn’t. I was with my (teenage) son in Las Vegas just last week because he was out there playing (in a basketball tournament.) And as we were walking through, the music was blaring, and everybody was singing the song, and we say (the racial slur) in music and I’m like, wow, we’re making millions of dollars off of saying it, and then we turn around and get so mad when someone else says it. And I’m guilty. And maybe we should start looking at that. I want harmony for my sons. That’s what we all should work toward.”
Teammate LeSean McCoy had a different view: “I think where a person thinks that the cameras are off and nobody is really watching, you let your true side come out, and I think that’s what happened. I think it’s a matter of him actually getting caught.”
What do you mean by “true side,” LeSean? Do you mean “instinctual side?” My aggressive thoughts and fantasies, antisocial bravado, unbridled scorn, shameless contempt, sadism, ego, lust, appetite, profanity? Yes, LeSean. I have all of those things in my personality, and they are all “true” about me.
Are you saying that Riley Cooper has an “instinctual side,” and you don’t? Gee, I hope not, LeSean. Because it’s just not true. And just because you and I, like everyone else, sometime give license to our Instinctual Self when we are alone or with an inner circle of true friends DOES NOT mean this “true” part of us can in every case define the whole of us.
There are regularly things I do and say on any given day in any given moment that I would do and say differently or not at all if I was being recorded for posterity. How about you, Good Reader?
Riley Cooper has stepped away from football for a while. I’ll be rooting for him, and for his teammates, hoping they will show us how justice and mercy are ultimately one door at which redemption and reconciliation stand knocking and waiting.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.