Ron Cook: NFL wants to stop use of offensive word in locker room, sports culture

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One day, the NFL talked about trying to eliminate use of the N-word from its culture. Seemingly the next day, wide receiver Riley Cooper signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Is this a great country or what?

Cooper, a white wide receiver, was caught on tape last summer using the N-word in the worst possible way, as a slur after a confrontation with a black security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert in Philadelphia. The story made national news amid much speculation that Cooper never again would be accepted in any NFL locker room. But, as almost always happens, talent trumped all. The Eagles took Cooper back -- perhaps grudgingly -- because they knew he could help them win. He finished last season with 47 catches for 835 yards and eight touchdowns and had another six catches for 68 yards and a touchdown in a playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints. Now, Cooper has been rewarded with that sweet contract.

Indeed, only in America.

The Cooper contract came as especially jarring news last week because of the NFL's tentative plan to legislate against use of the N-word, not just by white players but by black players, who use it more frequently. The league's competition committee, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is a member, has discussed a rule proposal that would call for a 15-yard penalty for use of the word, as well as homophobic slurs, during games.

Here's hoping the owners agree to it.

Who, in their right mind, would argue that slurs of any kind are necessary in the NFL?

Please, don't give me the argument that NFL fields and locker rooms aren't typical workplaces, that anything -- even abhorrent behavior -- should be allowed there.

That is nonsense.

Offensive is offensive, right?

The N-word represents a dark, shameful, embarrassing time in our country's history, when blacks weren't treated equally. That's why it has long been offensive for whites to use the word and direct it toward blacks. It's mind-boggling that former Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito used it so liberally and got away with it when he bullied black teammate Jonathan Martin last season. It defies belief that many of Incognito's black teammates defended him over Martin. It's hard to respect them when they can't respect themselves.

But the N-word is used more by blacks with each other. Somewhere along the line, that became OK. But that's also wrong. The word, when used by anyone, is offensive to many, black and white. It has no place in our society, now or ever.

Nor do the homophobic slurs. They became a hot topic last month after Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced he is gay and plans to become the first openly gay player in the NFL next season. Note the term: Openly gay. It's safe to say there have been gay players in the NFL for years and, for that matter, every other professional sport. Statistics, based on the number of gays in America, say as much. Those players have had to endure the hurtful taunts of teammates in silence. Maybe now, finally, that will change.

The NFL deserves credit for trying to stop the abuse.

Steelers safety Ryan Clark disagrees, at least about the N-word, even though he says he doesn't use it. He told ESPN Radio last week that he isn't in favor of the NFL penalizing players for saying it during a game.

"The N-word is used in so many ways that we as black people have learned to make it a term of endearment," Clark said. "If it's used in that way and a white referee comes in and says, 'I'm throwing a flag because I heard you use the N-word,' I would absolutely lose it on the field. I would go nuts."

Now that's mature thinking.

It makes perfect sense to get another 15-yard penalty and maybe thrown out of the game, right?

Clark wouldn't last long in the league.

"And I think a black coach would also be pretty upset if he got a 15-yard penalty because two of his [players] were talking to each other and they threw a flag," Clark said.

Maybe Tomlin will express that opinion to the other competition committee members. Or maybe he'll realize the use of the N-word is unnecessary in any setting. Tomlin is a smart man. I know which way I'm betting he'll go.

Steelers owner Dan Rooney gets it. He fully understands the historical context of the N-word. Clark told ESPN Radio that Rooney went to cornerback Ike Taylor and suggested the term not be used in the team's locker room. The Steelers have great respect for Rooney because of his place in the NFL, because of the way he treats his players and because of the Rooney Rule, which is named after him and promotes the hiring of minorities for head coaching positions. The players know he hired Tomlin.

It's naïve to think the N-word is never used in the Steelers locker room, but I'm comfortable saying it's probably used less there than in other NFL locker rooms. The point is Rooney -- wise, as always -- was ahead of his time trying to stop it. It's nice to think the league's other owners will follow his lead.

Will the NFL be able to completely eliminate the slurs? Absolutely not.

Is it worth trying? Absolutely.

Don't just take my endorsement.

"I think it's a good rule," Riley Cooper said.

First Published March 1, 2014 10:06 PM

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