The N-Word: Two Views

The MMQB’s Peter King and Robert Klemko debate how—and whether—the league should approach the players’ use of one of the most charged and complex words in the entire language

The March 7 Monday Morning Quarterback column reported that the NFL’s competition committee was considering ways to legislate against the use of racially charged language on the field. Two of the The MMQB’s voices debate whether that’s a good idea—or if it’s even possible.

Peter King: As I wrote in my column this week, it’s unlikely the NFL is going to make use of the n-word a penalty this year, or any year in the near future. However, what has surprised me in recent days is not only to hear the voices of white sportswriters, like me, saying the word should be banned, but also hearing respected Hall of Fame football players, like Harry Carson and Marcus Allen, both of whom are African-American, say they oppose the use of the word too. Where I’m coming from basically is that it seems any word that has been so reviled for so long by so many African-American people can now be used in another form as a so-called term of endearment. I don’t get it.

Robert Klemko: It’s an extremely complicated issue, and there are valid arguments on both sides. I’m torn. It’s hard for me to justify the use of a word that has so much painful history, but I continue to use it in certain company. There’s a large portion of the American population, and an even larger portion of the NFL, that sees a big difference between the two variations of the word. Any time you’re trying to legislate change such as this, you have to approach it in a very intelligent and calculated way. A 15-yard penalty for the use of this word as opposed to any other vulgar word that gets dropped on a regular basis during games is the wrong way to go about solving this problem. Say we tell a young black man who grew up saying the n-word that he can no longer use it. Why aren’t we saying the same thing to guys who use terms like f—-t and b—-? Why are we targeted these guys? I think the n-word is awful, but it’s no more vulgar than calling someone a f—–t.

Hall of Famer Bill Willis, who joined the Cleveland Browns in 1946. (Pro Football Hall of Fame/Wireimage.com)
Hall of Famer Bill Willis was subjected to unambiguous racial epithets as a member of the Cleveland Browns in 1946. (Pro Football Hall of Fame/Wireimage.com)

PK: I don’t know. I’m not going to defend the use of any of those words. And I’m really on the fence whether this is fair to give somebody a 15-yard penalty for this. It’s just my feeling that this has no place, even if it’s used with “a” at the end instead of “-er”. The way I look at it, if you use the word that ends with “-a”, you’re basically fooling around with the n-word. I just find it hard to believe that people would use any form of it and say, “Oh, we were just kidding around.” I don’t think there really are parallel words, like if you call a woman the b-word or the c-word. With all due respect to women, the n-word almost stands alone in the American language today, in terms of how objectionable it is to one part of society.

RK: That’s your opinion, but you have to consider the majority opinion among young black players and young black people in general. A lot people grew up saying this and see absolutely no problem with it. So if you’re actually going to try to fix this problem—which I agree is a problem—you have to go the education route. You have to talk to players at the rookie symposium, and during training camp, and during seminars—the same way they’re going to talk to players about homophobic language when Michael Sam enters the league. You have to educate people, and you have to empower them. You have to address the symptoms behind the n-word. Do today’s players have enough of a historical perspective? Do they know what Harry Carson went through? From a selfish standpoint, guys need a better understanding of how the world views them when they say “nigga.” If they don’t think it’s a big deal to say, they probably don’t understand that most of the country reviles it. It’s about education and giving these guys perspective, because I don’t think that most young NFL players upon entering the league have had in-depth philosophical conversations with their friends about whether or not they should use the n-word. It seems obvious to us that nobody should, but I think you overestimate how introspective players are in terms of race and language.

PK: When this push started, it was just John Wooten and the Fritz Pollard Alliance. Harry Carson is 60. Wooten is 77. But this week there are more players, like D’Qwell Jackson, who said he thought overall it would be a good thing. Marcus Allen is He’s 53. I’d like to take a poll of players and ask them. I bet the majority of active African American players would say that it’s okay to use. And I think America really struggles and wonders why so many players think it’s okay, why they don’t understand that people like me, and even people of their own race, who are one generation older, are surprised by it.

RK: It’s a lot of factors. The word has changed in meaning so much for so many people, because we hear it in music—it’s in hip-hop music. You hear it in conversations with your family. Rarely does a black person use it in anger. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard a black person say pointedly, “You nigger.” I draw the parallel with young women who refer to their friends as “these b—–s” or “my b—–s.” That’s okay with them, and I’m sure there are people who hate that, but it doesn’t stir up the same kind of emotions as this n-word debate. I think it falls along the same lines, where black people feel they can refer to each other as “niggas” the same way that women refer to their friends as “b—–s,” but they would hate it if somebody from the outside—a man—called them that. It’s a privilege thing with some people, including me. Black Americans were undermined by that word for a long time, so now it’s somewhat enjoyable to a lot of people that we flipped it and made it exclusive, like being in a club. It’s going to be very difficult to take that away from young players. I think that it’s a lot of guys’ feeling that they don’t want the NFL—which is this majority-white governing body—telling them which words they can and can’t use when referring to one another.

You said you were on the fence about the penalty, so what do you think should happen?

Harry Carson. (David Bergman/SI/The MMQB)
Harry Carson would like this generation’s players to be more attuned to what their predecessors endured. (David Bergman/SI/The MMQB)

PK: I think what should happen is that Richard Sherman and maybe five or six significant player leaders, who are respected, who are bright guys, who believe that the word fine, should sit in a room with some both current and former players who think that it shouldn’t be used. These guys should be free to express their opinions and talk very openly

If I were the NFL, I would propose to basically do nothing this year other than say, “We’re going to continue to educate people on the matter.” Then at some point this spring—say May 30, a quiet day when no one is really expecting it—you gather these eight or ten people in a room and say, “Let’s talk about this.” That’s what I think should happen. What do you think should happen?

RK: I reached out to a player I have a lot of respect for and asked him that question. Israel Idonije, the Lions defensive end, is a guy who takes appearances seriously, as he’s making big strides as an entrepenuer in preparation for retirement from football. He was raised to never say the n-word, and he hates that black people use it. Here’s what he said: “One side of me says go ahead and implement the rule because it speaks to a psychological change that, culturally, we need. But this is not like penalizing the behavior that brings concussions. With the n-word you’re talking about, somebody’s upbringing outside of the game. If you want to tackle those issues you need to address them outside of the game.” My idea is to bring in guys like Idonije and Ozzie Newsome and Jim Brown to give these guys perspective. It has to start with education, not just penalties, because otherwise players are going to feel like they’re being targeted, and they won’t respond well. It will take an education process that lasts a long time, in terms of either trying to convince these guys that it’s not a good word to use, or trying to convince them that for their own benefit they shouldn’t use it.

PK: Maybe the larger question that still remains as far as the NFL goes, is that at some point soon—probably very soon—there’s going to be a field mic, and on that field mic there’s going to be a player who says that word, loud. And that’s going to go into 19 million American living rooms. And then it’s going to be on all the highlight shows. And everybody will say, “Did you hear what was said on the Saints-Bears game?” Then everybody is going to say, “Well is that the affectionate use of the word, or is that the worst word in the English language?”

Look, I also speak from a point that I’m as white as they come. If I were a 56-year-old black man, I would probably think extremely similar to Harry Carson, who talks about the struggles of Bill Willis. There weren’t black players in pro football for a generation before Bill Willis and Marion Motley were signed to play with the Cleveland Browns in 1946. Willis and Motley heard the n-word in every stadium, and they were banned from playing in a game that year at Miami, in the deep South. Bill Willis is deceased, so he obviously can’t speak for himself, but it’s very hard for Harry Carson, who became friendly with Willis, to say, “That’s the ‘a’ version of the word. We’re just kidding around.” I just think there’s a large portion of the population—both white and black—that is going to say to people who think it’s okay: “Are you kidding me?” So those are the two things—the fact that it’s going to be picked up at some point very soon on a game mic, and that you’re never going convince former players, and not all-that-far-retired players, that this is okay.

Israel Idonije believes dialogue and education would change attitudes on both sides. (Tom DiPace/SI)
Israel Idonije believes dialogue and education would change attitudes on both sides. (Tom DiPace/SI)

RK: What the younger players would tell the older players is that it’s an ownership thing. They feel like they own that newer variation of the word. And that there’s a lot bigger problems that the NFL should be dealing with, and they don’t feel like they’re being disrespectful in any way to the struggle that those guys went through. I think the great thing about our language is that words change. Maybe this works, and the word “nigga” is cut out of the English language. But I tend to believe that 50 years from now, most people will see them as two very different things. White people are growing up on hip-hop the same as black people. So while I don’t think it’s an appropriate word to use at this moment, I think it’s something that will evolve into being accepted rather than being reviled—as some of these older players and coaches want it to be.

PK: A lot of smart people I know believe that the word is fine to use in private company, so I think I can accept that. Is there any word that in private company among friends you think shouldn’t be used?

RK: I’ve been around gay guys who joke around and call each other “f—–s,” and women who call each other “b—–s.” It can become cathartic to take a word that has been used to oppress you and make it a joke. People on the outside might find it disrespectful, but I think it’s part of the healing process for a lot of people.

PK: Is this word something that can be extinguished in the black community? If you have a son, are you going to want him to use the word in any variation?

RK: I’m not going to encourage him to, but I wouldn’t mind if he did. What I was always careful about, and what all my friends are careful about, is saying it in front of people who don’t have “permission” to use it. A lot of players talk about how they use discretion when they use it in practice or the locker rooms because they don’t want to give white players a pass. Is that something constructive towards building a team? Probably not. I don’t necessarily want my children to use it, but I won’t mind if they do, because I believe they own it, in a sense.

It’s an issue that could be solved to an extent in the realm of football, where we do have these extremely diverse locker rooms where guys are forced to mix with different races and backgrounds and sexualities. If it’s something that’s stressed that needs to be changed, and there are enough older players who believe it, and enough younger players who are indifferent or malleable, the issue could be masked to the NFL’s satisfaction. It’s certainly going to remain in the locker room in the form of music, and I don’t think it’s something that can be fixed in black culture at large, because of the large numbers of people who accept a variation of the word and the huge number of people that will never have this conversation that we’re having right now.

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31 comments
DavidHunter1
DavidHunter1

I find it embarrassingly lame that any player would consider its use as taking ownership of the word. Really? So you want to own something that has zero value? Gee that makes sense. Those who are bigoted against black folks love it when you call each other a word they love. It is beyond absurd.

KadenL19
KadenL19

I think it's a personal issue for a player to decide himself whether or not he feels comfortable using it outside of the game.  As far as on the field, this is a workplace.  It may be a stadium packed with screaming fans or a locker room with your teammates and coaches - but it's a job.  Every job comes with accountability, and I think we need to hold these players, as individuals, to a higher standard. 

Now, I say this as a white man, but it's not like every race doesn't have it's own "word."  For instance, I'm Jewish, and there are plenty of discriminatory phrases that are used frequently for people like myself.  Sure, it may not bother me all that much, but if it was said to my parents, grandparents, etc. I know they would be very offended.

I don't think we need to monitor the use on field.  If it happens, it happens.  In the heat of the moment during a game most people wouldn't be able to keep themselves completely composed and eloquent, at all times, as evidenced by Richard Sherman's interview after the NFC Conference Championship with Erin Andrews.  Outside of that incident, he's a very well-spoken, intelligent man, but he was largely criticized and judged just based on what he said during one of many post-game interviews. 

If they really want to do something about it, it needs to happen in the locker room and outside of gametime.

ProfessorGriff
ProfessorGriff

Ken Hoedecker - come call me an 'n' to my face current day, you coward.  I will slap the taste out of your mouth 

ProfessorGriff
ProfessorGriff

why in the hell is 'hip hop music' being held up as some kind of bible that is dictating that use of the 'n' word is now acceptable?  How warped are the minds of young black kids nowadays?

lcaseyk
lcaseyk

My father used the n-word all the time when I grew up.  I understood that it was not a kind word and did not use, nor do I use it today.  Young African-Americans may think that they are using a variation as a term of endearment, but any use perpetuates a terrible history in these United States and gives further fuel to those who would perpetuate the class and racial divide that continues to plague our country.  A word should not have that power, but seeing as it does, it makes for sense for all of us not to use it.

BITFUsearch
BITFUsearch

This discussion reminds me of a promo NBC ran several years back for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. [Yeah, that's right: The Fresh Price of Bel-Air.]


See in this episode, Will and Carlton were facing some serious problems at school. And these weren't trivial problems, either. No way! See, these were problems that had, you know, like some serious social implications and stuff.


The promo that NBC ran described this episode as "an important Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."


I still get a kick out that: An Important Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.


And today, we get An Important MMQB


Awesome.


Hey Peter and Panel, what do you guys think about the use of "N-Word"? And by "N-Word", I don't mean the word that the phrase N-Word replaces. No, I mean the actual phrase--"N-Word". As in, "You suck N-Word!" That's pretty inflammatory, is it not?


Right now, Dr. Dre is reading this and feeling my vibe and is thinking: "Enword Wit Attitude".


But seriously, it is inflammatory. So what should be done? And, even more importantly--what's the new placeholder for "Enword"? Is it "N-Enword"? "N-Squared-Word"? Or, how about just a really long N, as in "Nnnnnnn-word"?


OK, that's all for now guys, but thanks for this Important MMQB Panel Discussion. I've really leaned a lot.  

akira1971
akira1971

Being neither white or black, in my opinion if the "younger" African-Aamerican players find the term "-a" acceptable on the playing field, then everyone should be allowed to use that term, regardless of race.  There can't be a double standard to allow only one race to say it but not the other.

workingmanshero
workingmanshero

Why is the NFL workplace so much different than any other? Anyone else allowed to call your colleagues the N-word at work?

Citizendan
Citizendan

Can we get a three way discussion next week about the use of "cracker"?  PK can get on all fours and take feedback from the intellectuals like Klemko and Richard Sherman.  He went to Stanford you know. Couldn't you tell from his ridiculous outburst?

UnishowponyWherebeef
UnishowponyWherebeef

I've read some pathetic articles from PK in my life but this one has to be at the top of the list.


Even writing "the N-word" is egregiously childish. Write the word, for heaven's sake!


"The N-word", "f____t", "b____" ???


Are we in grade school?


Most 10-year old's watch hard core porn on their computer. And yet the PC censors insist on using the expression: "the N-word".


Pathetic.


Just pathetic...

AlburySmith
AlburySmith

Locker room talk can get pretty rough, and the "N-word" is probably used more by black players than by their white teammates, so an unenforcable NFL regulation doesn't sound like a very good idea. It's rarely used maliciously, and the players involved can sort that one out when it is.

PhillyPenn
PhillyPenn

I give King credit for taking this subject on.  A lot of white guys would be afraid to express how they feel about the subject for fear of being labeled a racist.  

pack fan
pack fan

freedom of speech? I don't know how language can be curtailed during moments of intense passion and during games against rival teams, good luck with that. but freedom of speech very much is controlled by the NFL. case in point, player A says he has no problem with a gay player on the team, player B says he does, not only is player B made to apologize, but he must also recant his statement, and where is the NFLPA protecting player B rights, after all, players pay a lot of money to their union to be given protection from such oppression. where is the NFLPA during this discussion about the N word? I thought after GENE UPSHAW'S death, who was pro-management, the new director was suppose to be tougher to deal with. to me he's been almost as invisible as JIMMY HOFFA. i'm sure the hard core rap songs black players listen to, doesn't help their views on fellow AFRICANAMERICANS, but I for ones am very glad to see black players, current and former players taking a stance against it, its about time.

vtmichaelb
vtmichaelb

So the NFL is predominately black athletes, and the NFL wants to ban a word that many of them use in every day language? Good luck with that!  I no more want to hear that word than I want to hear young children use the "F" word. But no rule or law will change that, it has to come from cultural and leadership attitude changes. And in this case the only ones who can lead this change is the black community. I am not trying to point fingers but, many of the best and brightest in the black community are the one who have put this vulgar word in the everyday language, and only they can lead that change.  I am no saint and would be nothing more than a liar if I said that I have never said or used that word. But as I have gotten older/maturer I know I was wrong and hateful for using it, and stopped using it. And openly correct/condemn those who still use it.That is how I make change. But to tell non blacks that they can not use the word because it is vulgar and racist, and yet the very race it offends uses in their everyday cultural language and I dare say glorify it, well then there is where the root of the problem really lies...Yes we all need to work together, but the lead on this one needs/must come from the black community, Not some law or rule that the NFL has little chance or ability to enforce.

EdwardGildner
EdwardGildner

I have something that the NFL should ban, and that is all these braded hair flowing down the back of the players.  I saw one player where you could not see his jersey number because of all the long braded hair.

GeneMitoro
GeneMitoro

Can't Ban A Word.....Constitution....1st Amendment....Fredom of Speach!!!!!

arwmedia
arwmedia

Any attempt to remove the "N" word from the lexicon of professional athletes will be regarding as an act of racism.  It has become part of the subculture of Black players, even though it is as offensive as any perjorative can be. Yet they have embraced it for whatever reason, and it is so embedded in their use of the language, it will not easily be erased.    

Billll
Billll

 OK. No N-Word. But, can they still call each other muthafuka without a penalty?

H.LewisSmith
H.LewisSmith

When it comes to the use of the n-word the African American community is a walking contradiction, to understand why and how the Black African American community came about seeing and using the n-word as a term of endearment, and the true significance of their use of the word n**ga you are encouraged to visit:

https://www.createspace.com/4655015

Buck2185
Buck2185

Why you two are even still discussing this is what actually needs to be discussed. I feel like calling both of you the N word. As for the NFL, Let's just shoot them all up with adderall, and let them shoot their mouths off however they like.....

LarryWard
LarryWard

this is the most ridiculous discussion I have ever heard. The truth is the NFL has no place trying to dictate language to the PROFESSIONAL adult players. Decency and decorum should dictate respectful language to their work colleagues. Has anyone really thought about how this will implode on the league? You are going to have referees saying I head you say the N word and players saying I said something that rhymes with it and everyone will be arguing about what you heard vs what I heard. All officials in the games are going to have to get hearing tests and so on and so on. The truth is if the players want they will simply develop a new language with the same meaning and use those words..we see this over and over in society.

This is all about some white powerful league people feeling uncomfortable with the word being used by black people and thinking they better show they aren't racist by being offended by it and trying to remove it. Yet the black people involved aren't offended. Seems quite arrogant on the league's part.

All that really needs to happen is for the NFLPA to have an open dialogue about it and perhaps offer some sensitivity training to those requiring it. The truth is in some cases it is even ok for a white player to use the word if it is coming from a place of love and respect. Black people are smart enough to know the difference people! Incognito is an example of this. What matters is the feelings behind the words. Gay people calling each other F's isn't from a place of hate and disgust neither is black people to each other.

Let the players decide amongst themselves.

RCH
RCH

@workingmanshero  oh I don't know maybe because this workplace involves 70,000 people screaming at you and the "employees" are smashing into each other at full speed and getting carted off the field on stretchers. Does that resemble your workplace? 


Shyzaboy
Shyzaboy

@GeneMitoro  Freedom of speech doesn't apply to the workplace. Can a school teacher use profane language around the kindergarten class? Why not? Free speech, baby!

bandit74
bandit74

@LarryWard  It is NEVER okay to use that word, either variation of it. For Klemko to suggest that some people have permission to use it is disgusting. It is a hate-filled word and that's all it will ever be.  For blacks to claim they "own" it is absurd.  You can't own something without having earned it.  Do today's blacks have to suffer through the pain and anguish that their ancestors did? Do they have to struggle and fight everyday just to be accepted as equals?  As humans even?  Absolutely not!  The idea that this word can be used as a term of endearment is an affront to all those who have born the brunt of hatred and racism. 

Shyzaboy
Shyzaboy

@bandit74  But can you turn back the tide? It is used regularly in popular music (not just "hard core" rap) that kids of all colors and backgrounds listen to on a daily basis. And not just a "variation" ending with an "a" instead of an "er". (Like that is as easy to differentiate when it is heard versus when it is read.) Teenagers today, in many places, aren't exposed to the depth of bigotry that pervaded the culture when I was a kid. (I'm nearly as old as Peter King...) I think it is backwards to force today's teens to understand how bad it used to be (and, correspondingly, make them more focused on our differences instead of our similarities as people).

bandit74
bandit74

As a matter of fact I am. My father lived through the civil rights turmoil of the sixties. My great-grandfather was a buffalo soldier and generations before were slaves. My father taught me never to accept that word and never to forgive those who do.

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