The NFL’s new N-word rule

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They haven’t adopted it yet, but the expectation is that they will next month. The new rule would require that referees assess a 15-yard penalty for a first offense and ejection for a second. Every current and former player I’ve heard discuss it so far has said that 1) one hears the word used all the time on field, 2) almost without exception, it’s said by black players to other black players.  In that light, there seems to be quite a bit of skepticism about what purpose the rule is to serve, well-intentioned though it seems to be.

In discussing the matter this morning, Mike Greenberg, who said his first reaction to hearing about the impending rule change was that he supported it but now is having second thoughts, flagged this short piece in the Daily News by Professor Jason Johnson:

The NFL’s plan to add a 15-yard penalty for the use of the N-word on the field is ridiculous. It is a bad solution looking for a nonexistent problem. There is no wild epidemic of football players calling each other racial slurs on the field and the racial slurs in the locker room are often terms of endearment.

More importantly, the notion that a word representative of 400-plus years of slavery, rape and government sanctioned violence, can be assuaged by a 15-yard penalty is downright offensive.

So roughing the passer is just as bad as calling someone a n—–? What’s next, a loss of down for every player accused of sexual assault? The NFL already has plenty of rules penalizing players for using excessive foul language of any kind on and off the field. The NFL has plenty of racial problems, lack of black coaches and owners, not to mention racial bias with referees, but the use of racial slurs, let alone the N-word during games, isn’t one of them.”

Greenberg also commended Richard Pryor’s Live on the Sunset Strip and, in particular, his epiphany about using the N-word after having returned from a trip to Kenya. The other Mike – Golic –  wondered whether, if this rule is imposed, the league will also have to consider a flag for the use of homophobic slurs. All of which is to say – this is a bit messier and more complicated than the NFL would apparently like it to be. Proponents of the new penalty have argued, among other things, that this sends a clear statement that the NFL disapproves of the word and that this a step forward in affecting a cultural shift in the word’s normalization and acceptability. One thing the ESPN special last night highlighted was the generational gap – it has force and sting for older folks that seem to be lost on teenagers.

That goal – to use a linguistic-based sanction to influence cultural attitudes and perceptions represents an interesting and ongoing evolution in the league’s understanding of its image and place in the marketplace. The different perceptions and understandings of the word, dependent on factors like race and age illustrate the vexing complexities of language. The NFL is clearly weighing in to argue that it thinks words matter and that the league has a clear stake in policing language. If that is the case, how can it possibly continue to allow one of its franchises to brand and market a slur for its team name? Prospective passage of this new rule would seem to create for the league an unsustainable contradiction as long as it continues to defend Washington’s use of its nickname.

Update: (from twitter) –Michael David Smith@MichaelDavSmith 57m

Wilbon said on PTI that Roger Goodell should ban “Redskin” before he bans the N-word. ESPN bleeped Wilbon using the N-word.

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