Players and pundits are asking whether the Eagles’ coach makes personnel decisions based on race. But is that even the right question?
by Larry Platt
We all know the drill by now. There’s an accusation of racism. To some, the evidence is scant; to others, a prima facie case has been made. The response is defensive, sometimes condescendingly dismissive. And then we’re off to the races, talking past one another all the while.
That familiar script is taking shape now on a topic about which the citizens of Philadelphia are already arguably too passionate: professional football. What are the chances for a reasonable dialogue when you mix the hot-button issue of race with Philly’s fanaticism for football? Not high. But one prominent local academic says it’s not too late to turn the usual flurry of accusations and counter-accusations into a teachable moment.
First, the background. Stephen A. Smith, the bombastic ESPN on-air personality and former Inquirer columnist Stephen A. Smith raised the issue in Mid-March: Eagles coach Chip Kelly had just jettisoned African-American stars LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin, a year after unceremoniously cutting Pro Bowl receiver DeSean Jackson. The parting with Jackson was followed in short order by the long-term contract awarded to wide receiver Riley Cooper, the white player who, in the summer of 2013, was caught on handheld video using the ‘N’ word during a confrontation with an African-American security guard during a Kenny Chesney concert. (A concert, it should be noted, that Kelly, and a handful of white Eagle players, also attended; it should also be noted that Cooper didn’t use the word as a prototypical slur. He seemed to use its hip-hop appropriation—“nigga”—when he said, “I will jump that fence and fight every nigga here,” addressing the security guard standing between him and where he wanted to go).
Last month, Smith took to the airwaves. “Chip Kelly makes decisions the last couple of years that dare I say leave a few brothas feeling uncomfortable,” Smith said. “…Now, I’m not saying I know, I’m just gonna say that it does strike me as a tad bit odd. I’m gonna repeat this. Gone: LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, ya know, DeSean Jackson. Staying: Riley Cooper.”
Smith said there were rumblings of upset in the Eagles locker room.
Recently, Tra Thomas, a former star player and a former assistant coach under Kelly, said Smith was on to something. “One of the things that you’re seeing right now, and these are the things that you have heard in the locker room from some different players is that…they feel like there is a hint of racism,” Thomas said on Fox-29 News. He cited a study that came out last fall showing the Eagles to have fewer black players (27) and more white players (25) than any team in the league, which sharply differs from the composition of the league itself, which is 68 percent African-American and 28 percent white. “You start to see the culture of the team change extremely quick when Coach Kelly takes over,” Thomas said.
For his part, Kelly responded last week during a media session at the NFL owners meeting. “I was just disappointed,” he said. “We gave Tra a great opportunity. He came in on a Bill Walsh minority internship program. Mr. Lurie was nice enough to keep him on for two years—one on offense, one on defense—to see if he could find a job in the NFL. So I hope Tra does find a job in the NFL. We don’t have a job open.”
When asked about having more white players than any team in the league, Kelly said: “I don’t look at the color of any player. I just look at how do they fit on our team. In 2015, I don’t think that’s something that’s ever come into my mindset.”
Former assistant coach Tra Thomas said there was a “hint of racism” behind Kelly’s decisions, pointing to a study showing the Eagles have fewer black and more white players than any team in the NFL. “I don’t look at the color of any player,” Kelly replied.
Indeed, there is a case to be made in response to Thomas’ allegations. Yes, Kelly jettisoned some great black players, but he also signed some great black players, like DeMarco Murray and cornerback Byron Maxwell. His own chief of staff and alter ego, James Harris, is African-American. And the coach has a history of introspection when it comes to race relations. When the Riley racial imbroglio flared up in 2013, Kelly reached out to the legendary Dr. Harry Edwards, professor emeritus at the University of California-Berkeley and a longtime leading voice on race in sports. According to a story last year in the Wall Street Journal, Kelly sought Edwards’ help in keeping his team together, and on other challenges facing a diverse locker room, including how to handle the playing of loud, racially- charged rap music. Continue reading