The “N-word” and the NFL

It’s never easy to talk about race. But just last week, the National Football League struck up the conversation when it proposed a 15-yard penalty for the use of the “N-word” on the field, with a possibility of ejection upon subsequent use.

The proposal has been met with entirely mixed reviews. Importantly, it has also raised a number of important questions about race, language, football culture and the NFL’s right, or perhaps responsibility, to mediate the relationship between all of these factors.

Before I go any further, I would like to make a few things clear: the “N-word” is not a word I would personally use and is a word which I in fact find deeply offensive. It should also be noted that this is an issue that is not only immensely complex, but also extremely sensitive. The history of race relations and racial slurs in the United States is accordingly complicated, and the language surrounding it is a product of processes of cultural evolution.

With that being said, the NFL’s proposal to eliminate the “N-word” presents an important opportunity to address how we understand the role of race in sports today. There is an equally interesting issue at hand as to what role the NFL might have in policing these social matters, but that is secondary to the real issue of discussing the language and culture of race in professional sports.

Interestingly, most of the pushback against this policy proposal has come from black players in the NFL. The main argument of many of these players is that the “N-word” is used almost exclusively by black players on the field, and thus the rule would be specifically affecting them more than other players. Indeed, the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman has proclaimed that such a policy would be “racist.” What I at first found to be a deeply ironic and troubling claim, upon reflection, makes sense. This rule would isolate and impact black players more than others, and thus might be perceived, at least by some, to be targeting that specific population of players.

What has really underpinned the argument from players opposing this policy change is an appeal to the culture of the NFL. Use of the “N-word,” according to players, exists on and off the field. And what’s more, these players maintain that the word is used largely between black players as a relative term of endearment.

This specific point tripped me up for a moment when I first heard it. There is a part of me that still feels that it makes little sense to perpetuate the use of a word that many, even those who are using it on the field, find deeply offensive in certain contexts. By continuing to use the “N-word,” it seems to me that players are keeping it alive in the cultural vernacular, instead of trying to eradicate its use.

While confusing, this is an important point to consider. The “N-word” is one that has been shaped by forces through history above and beyond what we can understand today. It has been used derogatorily and in regrettable ways, and unfortunately still can be. This is the history of the word from which I derive my deep discomfort with it, as I’m sure many others do as well.

However, there seems to be a cultural complexity to the “N-word” which, while I admittedly don’t fully understand it, warrants a discussion. It is all too often that a topic of discomfort or confusion, especially one that is racially charged, causes people to shy away rather than further investigate that which they don’t understand. In this respect, the NFL deserves recognition for bringing this issue to light, and hopefully stimulating conversation surrounding the “N-word,” race, language and sports culture.

There are other objections to the policy, such as the NFL’s subsequent duty to ban all ethnic and racial slurs, whether or not to change the name of the “Redskins” or how this would affect the players’ freedom of speech, not to mention the sheer difficulty of implementing the rule in a consistent, systematic way.

The short response to all of these concerns is that they are all valid, and it indeed might be unreasonable to assume that the NFL can assume the role of social police in a fair and uniform manner. It also seems unreasonable to think that an externally imposed  restriction on the field could substantially alter a culture that spans beyond the confines of the gridiron.

Whether or not the NFL elects to enact this rule change, it has stimulated an important conversation. It seems that the NFL’s goal in this endeavor is to promote a safe environment for all by eliminating a dimension that it feels has no place on the field. However, the point to remember is that even eliminating the “N-word” — in whatever capacity it might be used — from the field does not eliminate the complicated state of race in the NFL and in sports culture at large.

This issue has been and continues to be something that we as a culture and society deal with hesitantly, delicately and with considerable gaps in our understanding. It’s never easy to talk about race, but the NFL has started the conversation, so we should take this opportunity to confront this issue head-on and figure out how we as a society can better understand and deal with “N-word,” on and off the field.

Comments