If one thing is clear in the discussion touched off by the NFL’s likely adoption of a new penalty for use of the n-word on the field, it’s that there is no consensus on the issue. African American athletes, coaches and commentators are clearly split. Given that lack of consensus, it is surprising that the NFL players were not consulted during the process of conceiving of this rule (If I am wrong about that, I’d appreciate feedback. I’ve seen no references in media coverage to any dialogue between the league office and the NFLPA or other informal groups of players). The league isn’t necessarily going to listen to what the players want when they make a rule change, in general – for example, when it comes to player safety. But in this particular case, given the complexity of the issues, their culture meaning, the perception that a league of mostly white administrators is dictating to black workers, it would have behooved the commissioner to have invited input from players about how they understand the issue.
I do not consider it my place to decide whether African Americans should find the term offensive when they use the term amongst themselves. But I do increasingly wonder to what degree the impulse behind this push is influenced by a kind of “kids-today” mindset, an insistence on policing decorum among wayward youth. This was evident in comments made yesterday by the Fritz Pollard’s Alliance’s John Wooten, a former NFL Player. He argued that the rule, at bottom, was about “bringing back an element of respect…that you’ve got to make players respect each other, and if they’re not going to do it on their own, then you’ve got to put rules into effect.” The suggestion here is that there is some decline in players’ respect for one another. I don’t know whether that’s true. I also don’t whether the n-word is used more commonly now than was the case two or three decades ago. Golic has certainly testified that the word was used all the time when he played, and he last suited up in 1993.
If the NBA decided to adopt this rule because, among other things, it doesn’t want fans sitting court side to think it’s OK to throw the word around casually, that would be an argument worth debating. But there’s no such dynamic at work in football – no fan can hear anything a player is saying. So this really is about policing players behavior for the sake of policing player behavior. Yesterday morning, Cris Carter was on Mike and Mike defending the prospective rule. He argued that the NFL had a right to regulate conduct in its workplace. And of course, in the aftermath of the Dolphins’ locker room debacle, the league is more sensitive to such matters. Carter also complained about a lack of leadership among today’s players. He emphasized a desire to “leave a legacy” for younger players (Carter is a high school coach); to teach them better how to conduct themselves. In Carter’s mind, it seems, NFL players are also like high school kids (he said they needed the same things) – they need to behave according to a strict set of rules when they’re in Roger Goodell’s house. “They don’t,” Carter intoned, “need tolerance. They need more discipline.” After Golic asked Carter whether, if we’re policing the n-word, the NFL should ban gay slurs as well (and what about the Washington team name, Golic asked?) Carter didn’t answer the question about slurs in generally directly. But he did say the league needed to take a stand, that the players and the African American players needed to show leadership in cleaning up the language and, presumably, reinstilling respect and decorum in the game. Carter closed by saying “we used to have players who stood up like that. We used to have guys like Reggie White who stood up for something different. Forget about what’s going on in society. Right is right and wrong is wrong.”
The late Reggie White is, of course, one of the greatest players in NFL history. And he was absolutely revered by his peers. In a discussion of language and tolerance, though, he’s a bit of an odd example to hold up. White repeatedly made disparaging and indeed vicious comments references gays and their “lifestyle.” He did lots of good works off the field. He was also undeniably, loudly and publicly a bigot. I doubt this is the side of Reggie White his former teammate Cris Carter had in mind when he lamented the absence of such a figure on the scene today.
But the reference to White suggests a lack of coherence in Carter’s thinking about why it is, exactly, he is so adamantly in favor of this new rule, apart from a firm belief that “kids today” have lost their way and need someone to slap them upside the head to put them back on the straight and narrow. There is more of a whiff of that lament in lots of the defenses of the new rule. That’s a shaky basis for it.