So the NFL, America’s most micromanaged professional sports league, has found something else it would like to control: the speech of its players. Specifically, the league wants to adopt a rule penalizing players for using the N-word on the field.
We’ve been building toward this moment for several months now. In November, “Pardon the Interruption’s” Tony Kornheiser called on all of the major sports leagues to ban their players from using the word. About the same time, ESPN thought leader Skip Bayless called the N-word “the most despicable word in the English language,” and said it should “die the death it deserves.”
Not even the all-powerful National Football League can kill the N-word. But the league can ensure that its use sends a yellow flag flying. If the NFL’s competition committee approves the proposal this week -- as expected -- it will be passed along to the owners for a vote. Next season, we could very well be hearing officials say: “N-word, defense, Number 71. 15 yards. First down!”
Let’s leave aside the practical impossibility of enforcing such a penalty -- unless the NFL also plans to place microphones on all of its players -- and judge it on its merits, which are equally dubious. At best, the idea represents a misguided symbolic gesture. At worst, it’s a distraction, an attempt to divert attention away from the league’s far more serious problems.
I would guess that roughly 99 percent of the time that the N-word is used on a professional football field, it is being used by a black player. There’s a lot of discussion about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. (Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the New York Times that the effort to ban the N-word is “not anti-racism, it is finishing school.”) I’m not going to wade into this debate, and neither should the NFL, a league of predominantly black athletes working for exclusively white owners.
But the reality is that this proposal is senseless from either perspective. If you believe that black athletes’ use of the N-word is a form of empowerment (not to mention their own business) then you obviously think that they shouldn’t be penalized for doing so. If you consider the N-word a scourge no matter who is using it (and in what context), then reducing the punishment for its use to a 15-yard penalty -- it’s worse than holding but not as bad as defensive interference on a long pass play -- only trivializes the issue.
The penalty also happens to be unnecessary. White NFL players who use the word on the field use it at their own peril. The same can be said of white players who use the word off the field. See Riley Cooper, the former Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver who became a national joke after being caught on film uttering the slur at a Kenny Chesney concert.
Does the NFL have a race problem? If it does, it’s probably more of a systemic football problem, the last vestiges of a longstanding bias against black quarterbacks.
It’s true that Richie Incognito infamously used the N-word against his Miami Dolphins teammate Jonathan Martin. But we know enough about the Incognito-Martin story to know that it was not about race. If Martin had been white, Incognito probably would have just used a gay slur. And here we get to the heart of the matter. If the NFL is really interested in eliminating some of the “disrespect” from professional football, it would worry less about the use of a single word and more about changing a workplace culture than enables bullies, and perpetuates destructive myths of toughness and manhood.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @jonathanmahler.)
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