Legislating Language: Will the NFL Ban the N-Word?
One current All-Pro calls the idea ‘atrocious.’ But one Hall of Famer argues it's dishonorable for today’s players to use the word. The NFL is now stuck in the middle as it considers passing a rule to penalize those who use it on the field
We seem to have a disagreement about Johnny Manziel, and the salary cap has exploded in a good way, and Brandin Cooks is trying to elbow his way up in the first round, and free agency is only eight days away, and the Eagles have done a bunch of good business.
But first, about that n-word …
The NFL Competition Committee has been meeting in Florida since Friday, and one of the items the eight men are debating is whether it should be a penalty if a player on the field uses the n-word. I am hearing it is unlikely a rule will be passed this year penalizing a player for using the n-word for the first time in a game. Three outcomes are possible:
1. The Competition Committee will urge that it be a point of emphasis for officials this year. When officials hear it, they would admonish players about it and do nothing else.
2. The committee will urge that offending players be warned if the word is used on the field during games. After a warning, a player with a second use could be penalized for using it, at the discretion of the officiating crew. I say “could be,” because the league could give officiating crews the option of throwing a flag, depending on the circumstances.
3. Nothing will change. Players will be allowed to use the word at will.
I believe a combination of numbers one and two is most likely. There is already a rule on the books that would allow an official to throw a flag for taunting and/or excessive foul language. But understand that the eight-man Competition Committee is not a legislative body. It recommends new rules, and owners vote on them. So we won’t know anything about the outcome of the debate till the owners’ meetings in Orlando beginning March 23.
Over the weekend, I communicated with three African-American players about it. Two of them were opposed to the word being banned. A third thought it was a good idea but would be hard to police.
“It’s an atrocious idea,” said Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. “It’s almost racist, to me. It’s weird they’re targeting one specific word. Why wouldn’t all curse words be banned then?”
“It’s a common word in so many players’ everyday lives,” said Tennessee cornerback Jason McCourty. “Among African-American players and people, it’s used among friends all the time. It seems like a bit much for the NFL to try to get rid of it. It’s a pretty common word in the locker room, like ‘man,’ ‘bro,’ ‘nigga.’ But once a white person says it, it’s a derogatory term.”
Sherman emphasized that the n-word ending in “-er” is racist, but the n-word ending in “-a” is not, when used among African-American players.
“It’s in the locker room and on the field at all times,” Sherman said. “I hear it almost every series out there on the field.”
Free agent linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said, “Ultimately, if the NFL can get it done, it’s great for our game. But I think refs have a hard enough time officiating the game now. Now they’d be asked to police language?”
One reliable league source told me the biggest problem he saw is that very often during scrums, name-calling and foul language are exchanged by a group of players. What happens if an official thinks he heard the n-word from one player and it actually was another? The referee could call the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty/language foul, and if the offending player is white, it’s going to scar him for his career. What if the call is made on the wrong player?
It’s a very difficult issue, obviously. In the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning locker room, explicit rap songs, several using the n-word repeatedly, blared out from a boom box at Marshawn Lynch’s locker. Some players seem stunned that it’s an issue at all. But it’s been made one by the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the equality-advocacy group focused mostly on coaching and front-office job opportunities in the NFL. The Fritz Pollard Alliance has been loudly advocating the ban of the n-word this off-season. This is where the generation gap between the hierarchy of the Pollard organ—chairman John Wooten, 77, and executive director Harry Carson, 60—and many current players comes into the picture.
Carson grew up in South Carolina, and he was derisively called the n-word as a child by white people. He felt discriminated against. There is no kidding around with the word, no “-a” instead of “-er” that makes the word different to the Hall of Fame linebacker.
“I find it very disheartening that in our society today we’re having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment,” Carson said on Sunday. “If that’s a term of endearment, go up to your grandfather, or an elderly black person, and use it on them. See how they react. For those who use it, I say they have no sense of history.”
Last week, I was at the Pro Football Hall of Fame doing some research. It’s known in pro football circles that the Cleveland Browns had black players in pro football (Marion Motley and Bill Willis) before the Dodgers had the first black player in major league baseball (Jackie Robinson). Motley and Willis played for the Browns beginning in 1946, Robinson a year later with the Dodgers. But I was surprised to learn Cleveland coach Paul Brown was forced to leave Motley and Willis behind for a road trip to Miami on Dec. 3, 1946. The local segregation laws forbade black players from being on the field with whites then.
Willis made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Carson was enshrined, too, in 2006, 21 months before Willis died. They became friends, and had conversations about what Willis went through to become a pro football player at a time of racial strife in America.
“For someone who uses the n-word,” said Carson, “it dishonors Bill Willis, and it dishonors the sacrifices he and others have made for others in the future. I find it disheartening players can justify using the word in any form today, in 2014.”
So now you see the layout of the issues. It’s an incredibly sensitive topic, which makes the Competition Committee’s job impossible. No matter what the committee, led by Falcons president Rich McKay and Rams coach Jeff Fisher, recommends, it will face ire from one of two sides: football traditionalists and respected veterans who see it as an issue of dignity, or many modern players who see it as an infringement of free speech.