The NFL and the “N-word”: You’re Doing It Wrong
Part 1 – What’s wrong with the word? What’s wrong with the rule…
DISCLAIMER: The intent of this article is not to definitively state who is right or wrong when it comes to the use of the “n-word” in today’s society. Instead, I hope to generate discussion and maybe offer a different way of thinking about this issue by identifying problems at our core as a society, as sports enthusiasts, and the way we view professions in general.
Sometimes being biracial gives you unique insight into both sides of a racially-charged argument. You get a taste of a bunch of different cultures – whether you want to or not. My mom’s side of the family is white, my dad’s black. Growing up around Puerto Ricans was funny because they’d come up to me in a buffet line trying to ask me questions about the food in Spanish. When I came back from India with pictures, all my friends teased me and told me I looked like I fit in there better than I thought. Being biracial, you’re either met with immediate understood acceptance or a guarded sense of someone thinking “how/where do I place you?”
In some sense, growing up as a biracial kid is a balancing act between just being oneself and trying to be somehow one race or the other. As a kid I think I probably leaned toward the latter – bouncing between white friends and black friends, white extended family and black extended family, trying to fit in with both. I call it being “racially ambidextrous.”
While I think ultimately I just became comfortable with just being the same me all the time, my racial ambidextrousness growing up gave me a bit of a unique take on issues like the “n-word.” Combining that with my insane love of sports and the news that the NFL is considering instituting a rule levying a 15-yard penalty on players heard using the “n-word,” this article had to be written.
I’m of the opinion that the proposed rule to ban the use of the “n-word” in the NFL through enforcing a 15-yard penalty on players who use it is absolutely preposterous, and here’s why.
1. The word means different things to different people in different contexts
2. The rule is not enforceable
3. The rule is wildly hypocritical
The Generational Gap
The “n-word” means a lot more to John Wooten than it does to Jonathan Martin or most young African-Americans today. That is why Wooten, the chairman of the Fritz-Pollard Alliance (which is dedicated to examining issues regarding diversity in the NFL), proposed the rule to the NFL Competition Committee.
Any reasonable human being who listens to a John Wooten interview will agree that the “n-word” is a deplorable word that brings with it memories of oppression, hatred, and anger. For a guy like Mr. Wooten, it is just about the worst thing you can say in his presence. And most importantly, you can begin to understand why he thinks the use of the word is unacceptable in any context and hopes it can be eradicated from our vocabularies entirely. I’ll spare you Mr. Wooten’s entire background and upbringing, but suffice it to say I imagine growing up in Texas in the 1930’s and 40’s was a bit different than me growing up in the Connecticut suburbs in the 90’s.
For Wooten, the n-word’s meaning is much darker, much deeper than it is for young black men today because its meaning is less-removed from its roots, from its history, from the context in which it was birthed. It was the last word many of our ancestors heard before being hung, whipped, or shot. And once they were freed, it was the word others used to keep blacks in their place of being the subservient lower class.
Yes, for many blacks, the n-word is about the most insulting thing you could possibly say to them. A word birthed in bondage, developed by power, and groomed through years of hatred.
I was never really called the “n-word.” Because I was pretty much the only black friend many of my white friends, I was kind of a novelty for them and some of them got comfortable using it around me. But for the most part, other than being taught that it was a bad word from our parents and teachers, our education on the “n-word” came from what we heard on Chappelle’s Show or The Boondocks. Our social education on the n-word and how it’s defined today has been developed by Chris Rock, Katt Williams, and Kevin Hart stand-up the same way my dad’s generation became a little more desensitized to it through Eddie Murphy’s Raw or Richard Pryor. It was – it is – just sort of funny to us. Obviously, we understood that it was hurtful for some, but it became a joke as I imagine it is for a lot of Americans in School 2.
I’d head upstate to visit a buddy of mine who lived in an urban city outside of Hartford to play pick-up with them just about every Sunday (weather permitting) and the “n-word” on the basketball court took on a whole different meaning for us there. It was used in the same way you might say “hey dude, pass the ball.”
Call it desensitized if you want, I call it context and a generational gap. My dad (who falls somewhere between School 1 and School 2) would probably hate to see us playing on that court, hearing people talk like that and he’d probably have something to say to me about it. But at the same time, his generation fell somewhere in between mine and Wooten’s, so I think while he would disapprove, to a certain degree he would understand the changing vernacular.
Everyone wants to be right or be able to definitively choose who is right when it comes to the “n-word” issue. The Wooten school justifiably wants to see the word outlawed, Desean Jackson might use it to tell Deangelo Hall he had a good game. At some point we have to recognize that when so many different people from different backgrounds and upbringings use a word in so many different ways, a subjective argument for right or wrong can’t be viewed in one context alone. In the context of Riley Cooper at a country concert, it seems one way; when Richie Incognito leaves Jonathan Martin a voicemail calling him a “half-n*****” and ends it with “I’ll kill you,” its interpreted another way; when Kevin Garnett blocks a shot and says “get that s*** outta here n****” its interpreted another way. Is that a double-standard? Absolutely. It’s more like a triple-standard I guess.
(If you’re from School 1, I’m sorry about this video. If you’re from School 2 like me, enjoy)
If you’re white and you think that’s hypocritical, I’m sorry, but you’re just wrong and you just don’t get it. You simply don’t hang out with enough black people. Yes, some blacks like Wooten vehemently declare that the word is unacceptable in any case, but a lot of them – and not just young guys – but middle-aged guys like Mike Wilbon will look straight into an ESPN camera and tell you straight to your face it’s OK for him to say it with his friends and it’s not OK for white people. You’re not convincing him he’s wrong. You’re just not. You don’t just undo forty years of social conditioning. And if you understand empathy and the history of the black male in America at all, you’ll understand that for some blacks, it isn’t wrong.
On the flip side, blacks have to understand that white people don’t always completely get it, and need to show a little patience. It does sound hypocritical. To them, it is a double standard. No pun intended, there is no black and white answer to this issue. Just a whole lot of gray.
The truth has to lie somewhere in between, “It’s a terrible word to use at any time in any context between people of any race,” and “Well, it’s OK for everyone to use it now because Jay-Z and Kanye say it so much, what do you expect?” The context we view it in has to lie somewhere between a cotton field in the Deep South in the 1800’s and an NWA soundtrack.
My views on the word combined with the context in which I am currently writing are precisely why I choose to call it the “n-word” and put asterisk ***** things in place of the actual spelling of the word. Context. Context. Context.
I can’t wait for the first fumble in my theoretical 2014 NFL season where 22 NFL players are pulling each other off a man-pile for a loose football and the referee hears the “n-word” twelve times. Who do you call it on? I can see it now:
“There are two penalties on the play: Illegal use of vocabulary, unknown player defense. Illegal use of vocabulary, unknown player, offense. Both 15-yard penalties offset. 1st down.”
If the point of the rule is to be a deterrent to using the word by penalizing a team, what good is it at that point? What good is a rule that issues the same penalty to a racist thug-brute like Richie Incognito for calling a D-lineman a “worthless piece of s*** n-word” after pancaking him and one player using the word to basically say “nice play” to his buddy after breaking up a pass? How are those two things proportional?
Oh and by the way, can you imagine the post-game news conferences with the media?
Reporter: Hey that 15-yard penalty in the fourth quarter really hurt your team on its final drive of the game. What happened when you used illegal vocabulary with Player B?
Player A: Honestly, I completely forgot it was a rule. Bad habits, really. I was just congratulating him on making a good catch and it slipped out. Probably cost us the game and that’s my bad. Won’t happen again.
Steelers Safety Ryan Clark was interviewed about the possible n-word rule yesterday and had a very unique perspective on it. He said that he used to use the n-word, but has since changed his mind on it and now chooses not to use it. But he respects his teammate’s right to use it. To those players who disagree with guys like Ryan that the n-word is something rooted in hate, Ryan recognizes that it is used “as a term of endearment in the huddle.” Ryan went on to say that if a referee overheard one of his teammates using the n-word in the huddle amongst each other in a positive manner, he would “lose it.”
Enforcing a rule that is so controversial for the people whose respect the rule is designed to protect makes no sense. And an unenforceable rule is a joke. It gives credence to the idea that the NFL never was serious about addressing the real issue to begin with. It becomes counterproductive, and a step in the wrong direction.
The True Hypocrisy
I sort of laughed a bit to myself that Goodell was even entertaining this idea. I have a lot of respect for John Wooten, but to me there is nothing more hypocritical than the notion of a pro-diversity group like the Fritz-Pollard Alliance lobbying the league to enact the eradication of an offensive racial slur simply being uttered during a football game but not giving a petition to the league to force Washington to change the Redskins team name the same vigor and enthusiasm. Think it has anything to do with the fact that Wooten played for the Redskins during his NFL career?
It’s an absolute joke. How does the “n-word” offending John Wooten differ from thousands of Native-Americans being offended by what they consider to be the “r-word?” The answer, in short – oh, and you’re going to love this, is that the word “redskin” is less offensive because less people find it offensive than people who find the “n-word” offensive. Ladies and gentlemen, Roger Goodell:
“We are trying to make sure we understand the issues. Let me remind you: This is the name of a football team, a football team that’s had that name for 80 years and has presented the name in a way that has honored Native Americans… 9 in 10 Native Americans support the name and 8 in 10 Americans in the general population would not change it.”
So let me get this straight. If like, 4 in 10 Native Americans didn’t support the name and maybe only 7 in 10 Americans in the general populations would not change it then it would be less OK? If that’s your rationale, that’s fine. It actually kind of works. But where are the stats on how many black NFL players find the use of the n-word on the football field offensive? And if 9 in 10 players said “yea, no big deal,” would you still enact the rule then?
Our focus on eradicating the use of a word and/or our efforts to redefine it are useless if we fail to identify both the reasons why we use it and why its controversial to begin with. If NFL teams and players themselves hold each other to the same high standards we expect of professionals in other occupations, I don’t even think we’re having this conversation right now.
In Part Two, we’ll explore why the hypocrisy of this rule goes deeper; ignoring the plight, history, and deserved respect of other minorities who also play in the same NFL. And we’ll delve into the idea of professionalism as it pertains to being a professional athlete; why we’ve ignored it, and how we can change it.