The NFL would like very much to remove one word from its fields starting this fall. It’s not going to be easy.
The league would like so much for players to stop using this word, the N-word, that it may ask officials to throw a 15-yard flag when they hear it. That’s a big step from the umbrella “unsportsmanlike conduct” flag that officials presently can throw if inflammatory language sparks problems between players and it’s a step that’s fairly close to implementation. Racial slurs would be included as an offense warranting a flag if the competition committee recommends it in a meeting next week and if it gets votes from three-quarters of the owners in Orlando next month.
“I’m very much in support of such a resolution,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara, a member of the competition committee, told Gary Myers of the New York Daily News. “I think it comes down to a workplace code of conduct and we have the right to establish that. To me, any use of such language is not acceptable. It is certainly worth discussing and implementing.”
A ban, which may extend to homophobic slurs as well, collides with the constitutional right to free speech, but many athletes of color defend its use on the grounds that it’s acceptable within their culture. “A lot of times it’s not used as a racial slur,” Wyoming safety Marqueston Huff told the New York Times. “It’s just a kind of way for guys to speak.”
Mike Wilbon of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” said he uses the word with black friends frequently and has a bigger problem with the use of the nickname “Redskins.” Still, “I understand the need to look at it. I’m not sure it can be legislated successfully.”
“I’ve got a real problem with this. … I’ve got a big problem with this,” Wilbon said Monday of flagging the N-word. “So you’re gonna have a league with no black owners and a white commissioner — middle-aged and advanced-aged white men — say to black players, mostly — because that’s what we’re talking about — you can’t use the N-word on the field of play, or we’re gonna penalize you. I’ve got a massive problem with that. I don’t think it’s gonna happen. I know there are black men of the same age – John Wooten [of the Fritz Pollard Alliance] being one of them — who say no, you’ve got to take this word out of the workplace. I understand that. But I don’t want it enforced like this.”
Charles Barkley agreed with Wilbon, his co-author on two books. “What I do with my black friends is not up to white America to dictate to me,” Barkley told ESPN’s Jason Whitlock last fall. “The language we use in the locker room, sometimes it’s sexist, sometimes it’s homophobic, and a lot of times it’s racist. We do that when we’re joking with our teammates, and it’s nothing personal.”
“Words,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in a New York Times defense of the word last fall, “take on meaning from context and relationship.” That complicates matters and makes it even more difficult to accomplish the formidable task of restricting language. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney tried to get players to stop using the word in the locker room and had success for a while, Ryan Clark told ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” “You stopped hearing it immediately that day,” Clark said. “But after a while, it came back because it’s the culture. After a while, it comes back because this is what these guys have grown up with.”
Imagine how difficult it would be to determine who said what on the field. Baltimore Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, who is black and was a Hall of Fame player, serves on the competition committee and promises that the matter will be discussed next week. “With any rule that we put into play, we have to look at it from A to Z and find out what are the unintended consequences as much as the consequences,” Newsome said at the scouting combine. “But as it was stated in our meeting, there are mics everywhere. So, if something is being said, it’s probably going to be captured somewhere. So, it would be an opportunity to get it verified if we had to.”
As an alternative, Wilbon talks of taking “ownership” of the word, saying that ownership doesn’t extend to the men who rule the NFL, which Thomas Boswell says is a generation behind the times. Herman Edwards, an ESPN commentator who played and coached in the league, says the power lies with players, who should use it.
“Seventy percent of the players in the National Football League are black,” he said recently. “They can clean it up. Respect the game, respect your opponent. Don’t use it. Now we’re trying to get officials involved. I get all that. Regardless of which way they go, you can do this on your own. This doesn’t have to be officiated. This league is comprised of black players — 70 percent. If they want to fix it, fix it. You don’t have to have a rule. This is a choice. The players can straighten it out.”