NFL May Penalize Use of the 'N-Word'

Banning a racial slur from football games presents its own set of complications.

NFL referee Mike Carey makes a call during a game Oct. 6, 2013, between the Houston Texans and the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

The NFL is considering a rule change that would impose a penalty on players that use the N-word on the field. 

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Like a delay of game or a personal foul, NFL players may face a penalty – which could range from a 15-yard setback to an ejection from the game – for using the N-word on the field, per a proposal the NFL is reportedly considering. The rule, which is being pushed by the NFL diversity organization the Fritz Pollard Alliance, has been discussed by the NFL's competition committee and could be enacted as early as next month's owners meeting.

The N-word is one of the most problematic, loaded and volatile words in the English language. It is deeply embedded in America’s slave history and continued discrimination of African-Americans. While now deemed incredibly  offensive in most contexts, pockets of the black community, particularly in hip-hop, have complicated its meaning by taking ownership of it. Attempts at censorship have come with their own issues, be it removing the word from editions of “Huckleberry Finn” to debates over its use in the recent film “Django Unchained.”   

While the proposal has gotten the support of everyone from sports commentators to team chairmen, it also has arisen doubts, including from Packers player Clay Matthews, who questioned the logistics of the rule.     

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Recent incidents have brought the N-word to the forefront of conversations about race and the culture of professional football. Last fall, Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito, who is white, was suspended for harassing his African-American teammate, Jonathan Martin, in actions that included using the N-word on a voice mail he left Martin.

Also last fall, an NFL official was suspended for using vulgar language to respond, according to some, to a player’s own use of the N-word. The referees union – the National Football League Referees Association – called the official’s punishment a “double standard.” In a statement, it said:

"Apparently the NFL accepts and condones a culture where players, coaches and teams can use racial slurs and profanity toward each other and at Officials. Music played in locker rooms and in the stadiums before games include racial slurs (including the “N” word) and references to sexual violence with impunity. These types of cheap slurs and racial banter on the field often lead to angry and emotional responses which can result in fighting and injury."

In a sense, the proposal being considered is an attempt to correct at least some of that double standard by giving officials the ability to punish players for using the N-word and other slurs. “At a workplace environment there has to be mutual respect,” says Cyrus Mehri, counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, emphasizing the distinction between the language used in a workplace and in creative expressions. “We are asking the league to take control of the game on the 100-yard field.”

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The field may be where all the cameras are, but for NFL players, the workplace extends to locker rooms, training camps and conversations between players, coaches and team assistants. And while Mehri says for now his organization is focusing on the on-the-field penalty, its chairman, John Wooten, told CBS Sports, “We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room … we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere.” But the Incognito controversy was regarded as a rare glimpse of NFL culture off-camera and behind the scenes, where players have suggested racial and homophobic slurs have different meanings than in everyday life. In the wake of the stir over Incognito's comments, former NFLer Nate Jackson wrote for New York magazine:

"Out in society, the word nigger still excites and appalls, and a white man who is unlucky enough to utter it, even in jest, is forever labeled a racist. But inside an NFL locker room, the meaning of the word has washed out. There are white men who are so close to their black brothers that their lexicon is identical, and they communicate with the same phrases, jokes, and nicknames."

Mark Anthony Neal, a Duke University Department of African and African American Studies professor who has written about the N-word, agrees with the idea that, as a workplace, the N-word shouldn’t be used on the field. But he also sees this as a branding issue for the NFL.

“You don’t have black players running around complaining about there is too much use of the N-word in the locker room,” he says, noting that the proposal is coming at a time when there has been much discussion about the fluidity of the word's meaning. “For centuries it was used in a context where we understood its context and its meaning. No one was interested in legislating it at that time.”

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The rule also touches the current controversy over the name of the team in Washington, D.C. – the Redskins – which owner Dan Snyder says he will not change, even though many find it offensive to Native Americans.

There is some precedent elsewhere in professional sports when it comes to penalizing offensive language. In 2011, Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 for calling a referee an anti-gay slur during a game. (Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who is on the NFL competition committee, said that the members discussed including homophobic language in the NFL rule.)

Mehri says he is feeling “bullish” about the proposal’s chance of passage in the coming weeks, though that sentiment stems from his past experiences working with the NFL, not from any specific conversations he’s had with the committee members. He also says it will be up to the league to work out the details of how it would be enforced and to which contexts it would apply, and up to officials to make those judgment calls.