Okay, so if we’re gonna do this, then let’s get it out of the way. Nigger. It’s the single most horrible word in the English language and conjures up every terrible feeling that comes along with it. It’s offensive, burdensome, and I genuinely feel sick to my stomach that I even typed that with its presence on the page staring in me in the face. Last year during the Riley Cooper scandal, Patrick Swafford and Chris Lundy had a very real, very frank discussion about racism; specifically the use of that word and how it affects the modern sports landscape.
This week the NFL made news by attempting to do something to forever change that status quo with the announcement it was thinking of assessing a 15-yard penalty if the N-word is heard on the field of play. It’s an ambitious plan that Roger Goodell and the NFL Owners are embarking on, one that could actually pay off dividends in terms of striking a blow towards the eradication of the word, and I strongly believe that it is the absolute wrong thing to do.
I genuinely find it somewhat hard to defend any position that seems to favor any sort of cultivation of the ominous N-word, especially as a white man. It’s a word that is steeped in hatred, mired history, and never is without consequence when said…at least by white people. This point has to be the first issue that will be addressed when dealing with the NFL’s proposed rule. Last year Riley Cooper, at a Kenny Chesney concert, drunk out of his mind, was caught on a cell phone video using the N-Word and it immediately became the biggest story in sports. A solid slot receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, who I genuinely believe was set to have a huge year under Chip Kelly’s system, was absolutely mauled by the media, fans, players, politicians, and anyone who chose to voice their opinion. The mere mention or implication of the word by a white person is cause for serious alarm. Just ask Paula Deen. Am I defending these people? Absolutely not, but the fact of the matter is that the N-Word is now “The Word That Must Not Be Named” by anyone not black. It’s become a racial divide just as much as a cultural one. African-Americans have whether correctly or incorrectly feel like they have reclaimed that word for themselves. It’s theirs now and no one else is allowed to use it. Even looking at the hip-hop genre as a whole, imagine the backlash if top selling artists like Eminem or Macklemore were to use the N-word as freely as Kayne West or Jay-Z. Can you imagine it if they said it ONCE? Eminem actually went through a minor scandal based on a song that he wrote early in teens on a throwaway demo after a bad breakup with a black girl.
To argue whether or not the N-Word should be part of the African-American culture is not the point of this piece, nor part of this argument against the NFL. This is merely to point out that our current culture polices the N-Word’s usage by those deemed unacceptable and already punishes it fairly harshly. However, since the N-Word has become engrained in the black community, making part of the ruling on the field would actually only affect ONE group of players; blacks. I can only imagine the backlash of a referee, white or black, throwing a flag on a black player for calling another black player the N-Word. It’s the job of the referee to police the gameplay, keep players safe, and enforce the rules. It is neither their job nor responsibility, especially as part time employees of the NFL, to become guardians of social change and cultural progression.
This comes to another point that I find rather unbelievable about the hypocrisy of this proposed rule change. It is not without good or even great intention of the work of John Wooten and The Fritz Pollard Alliance, which monitors diversity in the NFL, who are trying to do something to stem the language that players use on the field. I understand that we as a society look up to athletes as role models and that by trying to get these athletes to eliminate the word from their dictionary, there is a belief that slowly but surely it will trickle down to youth who look up to them. It’s a great idea in concept but in execution, there are definitely going to be flaws.
The NFL officiating crews have already been under fire for making some pretty awful calls in 2013, from helmet to helmet violations, pass interference, and everything that happens in the trenches. To even attempt for them to have to now be paying attention to what players are saying to each other, whether they are on the same team or not, whether they are the same RACE or not, is going to be an absolute crapshoot. I can’t even imagine what the fallout is going to be to see a 15-yard penalty assessed during a pivotal moment in a game or after a key 3rd down stop because two players were excitingly celebrating with one another drops the N-Word. Perhaps even worse, if the referee even thinks that he heard the N-Word. This is not part of the officials job description nor should this be something to add to their already laundry list of things that they need to be watching during the field. It won’t be a white player calling a black player the N-word, it won’t be changing the culture of making the word less offensive, it will just be affecting a football game.
The NFL owners, Roger Goodell, and of course, Riley Cooper have all come out in strong support of this proposed rule change. Of course one would expect Cooper, still and probably forever on the contrition train of apologies, also not surprised that Goodell and the NFL owners, none of whom are African-American, would see this change as favorable. It’s considerably easier for non-blacks to find the word reprehensible; it’s a word that white men used to degrade blacks. It’s a word that serves as a stinging reminder of a very dark time in American History say from its founding till about now.
I can also understand John Wooten and Ozzie Newsome and others of a different generation feeling so strongly about the word being said in any context, whether by whites or by blacks. They lived through the negativity and degradation but there’s a strong generational divide that has to be acknowledged as well and to immediately point fingers and say that a person, again of any color, is wrong to be saying the word is something of a personal preference. White people will always vilify the word because it’s easy to be offended by your own reminders of guilt. It’s permanence will forever be a stain in American history. Of course one could make the very same assumption about the word Redskin. A word that was once used proudly until the white man turned it into a term of degradation and abuse while subjugating an entire race of people.
Yet there remains strong pushback on the movement to change the Washington Redskins to something less offensive. Dan Synder, the Redskins owner, refuses the change the name and says it shouldn’t be seen as offensive because it’s just a sports team now with a completely different history. Is it okay then for Synder to turn around and say “well ‘Redskins’ is different than the N-Word because we don’t mean it to be offensive”?
This also comes at a time when we are still dealing with the aftermath of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin scandal. The use of the N-Word is pulling focus on the majority of this rule change but it will also quickly move include any racial slur or sexually derogatory statement. Again, it’s tough to stand against any push to outlaw these kinds of behavior and it’s not an easy argument to make because it really can come off as defending the N-Word or other hate speech. I would love to live in post-racial, post-sexist, post-discriminatory society where words like that have no power and we can all just treat each other wonderfully. I believe in working towards goals like that, we all as a society should. I understand the argument that if you worked at a bank or a law firm and two black employees were to call themselves the N-Word there would be serious ramifications to that. Now, let’s move past into the real world and know that there are a lot of things that you couldn’t do in an office that you can do as a professional athlete.
If the NFL, Roger Goodell, and John Wooten want to get together and start creating meaningful social programs where athletes take pledges to not use the N-Word or any other hateful language, go to schools and start talking about the negative effects of saying words like that, start filming public service announcements, and begin to form players committees to actively work on changing the culture and removing hateful language of any kind. It is not, however, rules that should dictate the way that a sport is played on a field. The N-Word is too complex to be fixed by throwing a weighted yellow piece of cloth to fix and to think that we can put that burden on an officiating crew which is predominantly white against an NFL that is 70% black, is a fool’s errand. There are steps to be taken, moves to be made, and a culture that maybe can change through proper programs, education, and community. With that, I give the NFL and society as a whole, my completely support and voice. You cannot, though, expect 15 yards to change over 150 years of history.
- Chris Lemke