NFL players must adhere to all types of rules regarding on-field safety. It’s time for them to work under one addressing the use of inappropriate language in the workplace.
There’s momentum within the NFL to institute a rule by which players would be penalized 15 yards for using discriminatory words on the field, especially the N-word. A second violation could result in an ejection. Enacting such a rule would be the correct thing to do, and the NFL should be highly motivated to do it.
Two events recently — University of Missouri all-American defensive lineman Michael Sam announcing he is gay, and the harassment, racism and homophobia cited in the report on the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal — have stirred questions about tolerance in the NFL. The commissioner’s office has reaffirmed its commitment to creating a safe working environment in which players are free to be open about their sexual orientation. A rule prohibiting on-field slurs is the next logical step in that process.
For NFL players, the field is their office. There are laws prohibiting the use of discriminatory language in the workplace. In no other business are employees legally empowered to harass co-workers based on their race, ethnicity, religious preference or sexual orientation. Why should the working environment in the NFL be any different? It’s as simple as that, though I realize use of the N-word is complex.
In the NFL today, African-American players regularly use the word. They shout it in celebration while praising teammates for a job well done. Count on many African-American players bristling at a suggestion there’s something wrong with part of their language and culture, which the NFL is moving to eradicate from the game.
I’ve struggled with questions surrounding the word. I’ve taken part in heated arguments with friends, both black and white, about when, where and by whom the N-word should be used. The issue is deeply personal for me and many African Americans.
Ultimately, however, I stopped using the word several years ago — and it has no place in the NFL workplace.
If the NFL were to implement a no-slur rule (it’s expected to happen during the annual league meeting in Orlando next month), many league observers likely would argue it’s unfair to hold players accountable for what’s said during the heat of competition. Playing in the NFL isn’t like working in an office or even on a factory assembly line, some would say, so professional athletes should play by different rules. But they’d be wrong.
The Dolphins report was a wake-up call for the entire league. The deplorable conduct of guard Richie Incognito and his cohorts, offensive linemen John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, in harassing linemate Jonathan Martin and other team employees created a hostile working environment in the Dolphins’ locker room. The image-conscious NFL doesn’t want that, particularly with Sam poised to become the league’s first openly gay player.
In advance of the league’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis last week, the NFL sent a memo to teams reminding them that the league prohibits discrimination against players based on a variety of factors, including sexual orientation. Although the league is framing its potential anti-slur rule around the most racially incendiary word in the English language, it appears that is just a pretext to create a deterrent for harassment against Sam and other openly gay NFL players in the future.
Despite the widespread support Sam received from league owners, officials and players after coming out about his sexual orientation, he potentially could face harassment from the less enlightened in their ranks. For the public, Sam would become the face of the proposed new rule. A great side benefit would be the effect the rule could have on discouraging the use of all slurs, especially the one that is socially unacceptable to say to blacks.
The group formed to promote diversity in hiring in the NFL has been a driving force in trying to end the use of the N-word in the league. John Wooten, chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, is strongly in support of the league’s thinking, and “I will be totally shocked if the competition committee does not uphold us on what we’re trying to do,” Wooten told CBS Sports at the combine.
“We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room,” he said. “Secretaries, [public relations] people, whoever, we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere.”
Through the years, the true offensive meaning of the word has been obscured by its use in popular culture. Hip-hop artists have glorified it in rap lyrics. Among blacks in all walks of life, the word often is used as a term of endearment and empowerment. That certainly isn’t what civil rights leaders of the 1950s and ’60s envisioned when they sacrificed, sometimes with their lives, to fight for equal footing in society.
The fact that several misguided African-American Dolphins players were among Incognito’s most vocal defenders despite his use of the slur illustrates the cavalier attitude many in the black community have about its use. But for Wooten and others pushing for a no-slur rule, all that matters is that the N-word is considered inappropriate in the workplace. I like their thinking.
Rules evolve to adapt to changes in the game. The NFL is undergoing great change — and it needs an important new rule for these times.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.