By now you’ve probably heard of Riley Cooper. Until last week, Cooper’s was a name known only to die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fans; now it’s a household word. Last week, a video surfaced of a drunk Cooper (who is white) using a racial slur (the racial slur) while claiming he wanted to fight all of the African-Americans at a Kenny Chesney concert.
In a statement following the video’s appearance on the internet, Cooper said, “I am so ashamed and disgusted with myself. I want to apologize. I have been offensive. I have apologized to my coach, to [Eagles owner] Jeffrey Lurie, to [General Manager] Howie Roseman and to my teammates. I owe an apology to the fans and to this community. I am so ashamed, but there are no excuses. What I did was wrong and I will accept the consequences.”
To most observers, Cooper seems sincere and legitimately contrite. Only God knows, of course. But it’s not the quality of Cooper’s apology that interests me, it’s the reaction of Cooper’s teammates to the apology.
Two very different reactions from two different teammates (both African Americans) illustrate very powerfully some very famous words of Jesus.
The first reaction to Cooper’s apology came from his quaterback, Michael Vick. You remember Vick? The quarterback who spent nearly two years in prison for running an illegal and deadly dog-fighting ring? Vick said:
“As a team we understood because we all make mistakes in life and we all do and say things that maybe we do mean and maybe we don’t mean. But as a teammate I forgave him. We understand the magnitude of the situation. We understand a lot of people may be hurt and offended, but I know Riley Cooper. I’ve been with him for the last three years and I know what type of person he is. That’s what makes it easy, and at the same time, hard to understand. But its easy for me to forgive him.”
Vick also tweeted: “Riley’s my friend. Our relationship is mutual respect. He looked me in the eyes and apologized. I believe in forgiveness and I believe in him.”
On the other end of the spectrum is LeSean McCoy, the Eagles’ star running back:
“I forgive him. We’ve been friends for a long time. But in a situation like this you really find out about someone. Just on a friendship level, I can’t really respect someone like that…I guess the real him came out that day. The cameras are off, you don’t think nobody’s watching or listening, and then you find out who they really are. And to hear how he really came off, that shows you what he’s really all about.”
Now, I know that LeSean McCoy used the words, “I forgive him.” But he completely (and immediately) undercuts those words: “You really find out about someone…I can’t really respect someone like that.” Listen to the most important difference between Vick’s and McCoy’s statements:
Vick: “We all make mistakes and we all do and say things…”
McCoy: “That shows you what he’s really all about.”
Notice that where Vick says “we,” McCoy says “he.” Michael Vick puts himself in a category with Riley Cooper. While LeSean McCoy seeks to distance himself from a former friend, Michael Vick puts himself next to the accused.
The difference between Vick and McCoy? Twenty-one months in a federal penitentiary and a deep knowledge of what it feels like to need forgiveness.
In Luke 7, a sinful woman anoints Jesus’ feet with oil. As she did so, she wept and wiped her tears from Jesus’ feet with her hair. To answer the disgust of Simon the Pharisee, his host, Jesus tells him a story and asks him a question:
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.” Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little” (v. 42-47).
Michael Vick has been forgiven much. When he was a social pariah, the Eagles gave him a second chance. LeSean McCoy is apparently less in touch with his own brokenness. His reaction reveals that he doesn’t think he’s a gross sinner in need of gigantic forgiveness. I’m sure he would admit that he’s not perfect. But he clearly sees Cooper as worse—less righteous—than he is: “That shows you what he’s really all about.”
To the extent that we ignore (or run from) our own sinfulness, we will be unable to care for other sinners. We will be unable to extend forgiveness to others until we are honest about the extent to which we are forgiven. The most forgiving people are those who are coming to daily, deeper terms with their own need for forgiveness. Ungracious people are those who haven’t come to grips with their own dire, daily need for grace.
Michael Vick knows that he (and we) are more like Riley Cooper—foul transgressors in need of forgiveness—than McCoy would like to admit, which is why Vick’s first instinct was to forgive. And whose reaction do you think will inspire Cooper to deal with whatever issues he has? Vick’s or McCoy’s? Who will he confide in? Who will he listen to? To which player will he turn? Who’s in a better position, therefore, to guide him, help him?
“I tell you, her sins–and they are many–have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”