Tony Norman: A ref's flag won't stop the foul of the 'n-word'

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When football season resumes later this year, unsportsmanlike -- or even the casual and playful use of the "n-word" on the field -- could result in a 15-yard penalty if the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group that monitors diversity in the NFL, has its way.

The NFL's Competition Committee is believed to have made a formal pitch to National Football League team owners to ban the use of the word in all of its iterations.

The usual sophistry about it being a "term of endearment" among black players won't cut it if the owners -- who are 100 percent white, privileged and far removed from the formative experiences of their overwhelmingly black workforce -- adopt the rule.

(As for white players using the word: Honestly, that's not the problem they're trying to address here. Such flagrant racism would have been shut down long ago.)

No distinctions will be made between suffixes, either. If the ref, who will most likely be white, hears the epithet, he will consider it racially offensive regardless of whether it ends with "-er" or "-a."

"We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room," said John Wooten, head of the Fritz Pollard Alliance (named for the first African-American coach in the NFL). "Secretaries, PR people, whoever, we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere."

Because it is believed to be one of the most ubiquitous words uttered by players in the NFL, it will make for an interesting season if it is ever enacted, especially if players make a point to ignore it -- as they surely will.

Seattle Seahawks player Richard Sherman has already weighed in on the issue. "It's an atrocious idea," said the cornerback, who is black. "It's almost racist to me. Why wouldn't all curse words be banned then?"

Mr. Sherman would have a point if deliberations at the highest level of the NFL were really about the consistent application of justice across the board. It's obvious to all but the dimmest sports fan that if the multibillion-dollar nonprofit NFL really had a social conscience, it would modify the brutality of the game to minimize concussions and brain damage. But I digress.

Suspended Miami Dolphins player and team bully Richie Incognito aside, black players are more likely than their white colleagues to be penalized for using the word since their comfort level with it is so much higher.

Black folks have a history with the n-word that is deep, brutal and etched on the pages of American history with more blood than can be honestly calculated. That doesn't mean we have exclusive rights or ownership to what has been an instrument of racist social control and torture for centuries.

It always amazes me when African-Americans insist on sole ownership of that word, as if it were some precious heirloom to be handed down within the confines of "the family" instead of treated for what it actually is -- the spiritual equivalent of the Ebola virus. The n-word isn't a "black thang" or a "white thang." It's an "American thang." In fact, no word is a truer embodiment of our conflicted, bloody and hypocritical history.

So, why such a stubborn attachment to such a vile word? Enslaved Africans didn't come up with it. The Europeans who ferried them across the Atlantic to the Americas have ultimate bragging rights. Meanwhile, the aesthetically impoverished rapper who uses the word to demean himself and his listeners is, at best, borrowing a term that has been in circulation since the early 1600s.

When athletes parrot the language of corporate-sponsored rappers and lowbrow comedians who package the n-word for fun and profit, they're not "repositioning" the slur for a subversive critique of white supremacy. That's a fantasy. All they're doing is revealing the extent of their own self-loathing while using new rhymes to wallow in the same old oppression. Twenty years of cultural accommodation and ambivalence about the n-word can't outweigh the indignities of the previous four centuries.

I agree that there's something deeply patronizing about any plan that has white billionaires dictating to black millionaires how they should talk or what they should listen to on or off the field. The rule is unenforceable on a practical level, anyway. It is probably a class-action lawsuit waiting to happen on free-speech grounds alone.

Still, there's nothing wrong with prompting a conversation in NFL locker rooms -- and beyond -- about the history of the word. Most athletes don't know the word's history, which is why many can use it so liberally. Instead of threatening punitive action and instituting useless speech codes, why not try education and enlightenment?

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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