Is there an n-word problem in the NFL?

NFL logo (All rights reserved by NFL. Courtesy of
NFL logo (All rights reserved by NFL. Courtesy of

The NFL is coming close to implementing a new law outlawing the use of the n-word.

There aren’t many details being released on how and when this will start being enforced, but we do know that action will be taken when the word is used by a player on the field. The initial penalty will be worth 15 yards and a second offense would result in an ejection according to ESPN.

John Wooten, who is head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance (a group that pressured the NFL to implement the Rooney Rule), said he expects the new rule will make its way to the football field next month starting with an owners’ meeting.

Wooten said,

“I will be totally shocked if the competition committee does not uphold us on what we’re trying to do.”

Ozzie Newsome, general manager of the Baltimore Ravens and member of the NFL’s competition committee, acknowledged talks with FPA and said both sides have discussed the situation including penalizing other epithets like a particular one used against gays (this will be an interesting issue to retouch as the league deals with Missouri defensive end Michael Sam).

In about a month, the league is about to put forth a controversial new rule and demand that players adjust to something that is often a part of (good or bad) the lives of young black males?

I’m quite certain that the “problem” these organizations have isn’t whites or Latinos in locker rooms or fields dropping the n-word in a derogatory way toward black athletes. Where the league sees the issue is in its usage from black athletes (who more often than not use it in a way far removed from its original, negative intention).

Now, is getting rid of the n-word in a professional setting an adult, professional and mature thing to do? Of course it is. But the issue doesn’t lie in whether or not this is professional, it’s in the process and intent. The league and the alliance are being vague about his issue in the days since the story broke.

If they wanted to “save” these black men from themselves, it could have started with some sort of meeting between players, coaches and everyone involved in the NFL experience months or years ahead of time.

The word has an uncomfortable history, but culture and language are complex concepts — not easily fixed in a matter of months. One may be trying to do the right thing by banning a word, but there are freedom of speech rights that are at play. If not done carefully, the punishment of this word could actually result in the type of discrimination the league says its attempting to eliminate.

It does get redundant to hear about the controversy behind this word, but it needs to be examined in a thoughtful manner. The word has many different uses. It can be used to describe someone as subhuman (usually blacks). It can be used a filler like when rappers can’t think of anything in a rhyme so they just say “nigga.” It could be used to represent someone you respect or is close to you.

The way the NFL is approaching this issue from a punishment-oriented perspective instead of creating a teachable moment. It seems like the NFL regards this situation as one of “no discussion” — no different from a head-of-the-household relationship. That’s because at the center of this debate, it’s actually not a black and white issue: It’s an old school vs. new school.

You’ve got NFL general managers, coaches and veterans that were in the United States at a time when the n-word was not used as a term of endearment. It was directly associated with death, subhumanism, disrespect, fear and pain. No matter how sensitized the current generation is to the word, those who grew up in that world will still hear the word and hate it.

On the other hand, the players on the field are of a different generation. Football is a young man’s game more than any other sport. The young guys on the field are removed from the Jim Crow era and even the days of Reaganomics. The players are listening to urban music where the n-word is used consistently and with little regard. For the most part, white people don’t use the word (at least not in public places) so to the new guys, it’s like “what’s the big deal?”

The NFL and the Fritz Pollard Association could be dealing with lawsuits if not done right. If the word has been a problem in the league, it should have been addressed at the time as well as an attempt to resolve the problem in a courteous manner.

With the recent events involving Richie Incognito and Riley Cooper, there should be more discussion of racism instead of a word left on its own. If we prosecute those who use “nigger (and its various uses)” shouldn’t we prosecute the words “wetback,” “fag” and “cunt” due to the diverse nature of the league? By policing this one word, are we saying that the use of the word “nigger” is somehow worse than any other slur?

Racism, misogyny and homophobia are real and they all need to be handled appropriately through real discussion, not through fines and punishment.

According to Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Clark, team chairman Dan Rooney wanted the word out of his locker room last season. Clark added that Rooney and the organization have the utmost respect for the black players and head coach Mike Tomlin. There is a possibility this could have been an issue in the past, but more on this story will have to come out before an effective analysis can be given, but from the looks of it now things don’t look to be going well for those at the center of the controversy.


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