The NFL appears likely to take steps this offseason to attempt to curb the use of racial slurs by players during games. But according to several people familiar with the discussions, such a ban might be enacted through a directive to game officials about enforcing existing rules instead of via a formal rule change.
There is considerable sentiment within the league that a new rule is not needed because current rules allow officials to impose a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct on a player who uses a racial slur on the field, those people said. According to those people, the NFL’s competition committee could stress that to officials by making a penalty for the use of a racial slur a point of officiating emphasis for the 2014 season.
“I think you may see it made a point of emphasis,” said one person with knowledge of the deliberations, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the NFL has made no formal announcement on how it will address the issue. “The thought is that there is already the mechanism to deal with that under the existing rules.”
According to that person, there is strong support among league leaders for enacting such a ban and NFL representatives have been told by game officials that enforcing the rule in that way should be feasible in practical application.
“The officials feel it can be done,” that person said. “There are going to be times when you can’t determine who said what. But there are times when you can determine it and can make a call. I think a lot of people deplore that type of language being so widespread and feel doing something about it is the right thing to do.”
The sentiment for enacting the ban on racial slurs through a point of emphasis to game officials was confirmed by two other people close to the situation.
John Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, said Thursday that league officials have expressed similar sentiments to him.
“That’s pretty much what they’ve told me,” Wooten said in a telephone interview.
Wooten said he has no problem with the league using existing rules to enforce a ban on racial slurs. Wooten said he was told after an incident last season involving Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams that such an infraction could be addressed and penalized by game officials under the current rules.
“When this first started, this came about as a reaction to what transpired in the Washington-Philadelphia game with Trent Williams,” Wooten said Thursday. “At the time, the point was made that there is a rule in place dealing with [the use of] racial statements like that. Our whole point is to make sure the game-day officials understand this and feel empowered to act on it. No one has explained this to the game officials. I really feel the competition committee will make the recommendation to get rid of this word from the field and in the locker rooms and in the team offices and practice facilities.”
A point of emphasis from the competition committee to the officials would not have to be ratified by the sport’s team owners. That is a procedural difference from a formal rule change proposed by the competition committee, which would need to be approved by at least 24 of the 32 owners. The annual league meeting is scheduled for late next month in Orlando and the issue is likely to be addressed then.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance, a diversity group that works with the NFL on its minority hiring practices, has urged the league to act in a bid to eliminate the use of racial slurs by players and other employees. The Fritz Pollard Alliance issued a written statement in November urging NFL players “to stop using the ‘N’ word, especially after recent incidents in Washington and Miami.”
Wooten accused Williams of directing a profanity and a racial slur at an official, umpire Roy Ellison, during a November game against the Eagles after Ellison attempted to stop players from both teams from using abusive language at one another. According to Wooten, Williams said, “[Expletive] you, N-word” to Ellison. Both Williams and Ellison are African American.
Williams denied using a slur and alleged that Ellison cursed at him during the game. Williams said that Ellison called him a “garbage [expletive], disrespectful [expletive].” Wooten said that Ellison called Williams an “ungrateful [expletive]” and acknowledged that Ellison should have penalized and ejected Williams from the game rather than using profanity.
The NFL announced in November that Ellison had been suspended for one game without pay for “making a profane and derogatory statement” to Williams. The NFL Referees Association denounced the suspension, also accusing Williams of using a racial slur at Ellison, and announced plans to file a grievance on Ellison’s behalf. The outcome of its attempt to restore Ellison’s lost pay for the game that he missed is not known. Williams was not disciplined by the league for the incident.
Both Wooten and Williams expressed the belief soon after the episode that Ellison could have penalized Williams under existing rules.
“If I ever said anything like that to a ref and he feels that strongly about the word, that’s at least an unsportsmanlike [conduct penalty],” Williams said at the time.
The Fritz Pollard Alliance also cited the bullying allegations involving Dolphins players in urging the league to act on the issue of racial slurs.
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