Why the NFL Shouldn't Throw Penalty Flags on Players Who Say "Nigger"

Categories: Sports

Riley_Cooper_Eagles_vs_Redskins.jpg
Matthew Straubmuller
Call it the Riley Rule. (Actually, don't call it at all.)
This story originally appeared on Deadspin.

Last week, we got word that the Fritz Pollard Alliance, chaired by ex-NFL player John Wooten, was pushing a rule change in the league that would penalize players for the use of the word "nigger" on the football field. The proposal involves a 15-yard penalty for a player's first offense, with an ejection if he says it again. This idea is bullshit, but it's gained so much traction that it's already been kicked to the NFL Competition Committee, comprising a racially diverse eight-man group of league coaches and general managers. They'll most likely present the rule change to the NFL's mostly old, mostly white owners next month.

The word "nigger" has gotten a lot of play in football over the last while, first with Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper proclaiming at a Kenny Chesney concert over the summer that he would "fight every nigger here," and then with the ongoing Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin affair, during which it emerged that Incognito called Martin many racial epithets, including "half-nigger piece of shit."

So between this proposed rule change, white guys calling black guys "niggers," and Black History Month, ESPN thought it would be a good idea to run an Outside the Lines special on Sunday titled "The N-Word." This was essentially an hourlong Around the Horn debate in drag, featuring ESPN personalities like Michael Wilbon, Jason Whitlock, Jemele Hill, and Tom Jackson, as well as others like Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Touré. Weirdly, Common turned up, too, presumably because he seems soulful, didn't really have shit else going on, and agreed to do an awkward little beat-poetry number to start the show. Dr. Richard Lapchick was also on hand, and while he's done a lot of great work over the years, it wasn't entirely clear why ESPN had invited him on to talk about the word "nigger," and given the amount of time he spent establishing his right-thinking bona fides, perhaps it wasn't clear to him, either.

In any case, the show sucked, for the same reason the proposed rule change sucks: Even after 400 years of slavery and de jure and de facto racism in this country, we still don't know how to talk about "nigger." We treat the word as a matter of etiquette, as a thing one shouldn't say in civilized society, and rarely reckon with what it actually means for someone to say it.

The problem of the word is that its etymology is entwined with an atrocity: the systematic purchase, relocation, enslavement, torture, rape, and murder of a race upon these shores. Not every black person has ancestors who were slaves, but nearly every black person in the Western Hemisphere can trace his or her roots to this bloody past, and no word or phrase has ever been devised that better or more efficiently encapsulates both that history and the way that history is woven into the present. It's a heavy word, having lost none of its violence or menace over the years. As Whitlock said during Outside the Lines, it was the last word many, many blacks heard before being shot or hanged or dragged or pummeled or hacked to death.

But "nigger" is also just a word. If it had never issued from a man's mouth, you can be damn sure the boats and the whips and the chains would've kept on coming. There would've been just as many shootings and hangings and draggings and pummelings and hackings in a "nigger"-less America, and we'd be having an earnest and altogether useless debate today about the propriety of using some other word, and we'd still be mistaking the symptoms for the disease.

That's part of the history, too, though--the non-reckoning. Reconstruction was less a nationwide effort to repair a broken country than a synchronized effort to dismiss the past, and among its legacies was a century and change of trying to sidestep the issue. We don't want to talk about any of that. It's uncomfortable; it's painful; it brings up incredibly complex questions about how we right wrongs that, however much they affect us today, were committed before our grandparents were born and that are in some ways baked into the system. Strange as it was, Common's introduction--written by ESPN's professional Southerner, Wright Thompson--got at the issue better than anything that transpired in the actual discussion. To reckon with "nigger," the piece understood, you have to reckon with history.

What is that history? It's slavery, and a campaign of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, and six million African-Americans fleeing the racially segregated South to Northern and Western cities in search of freedom and opportunity, and many of them ending up in isolated ghettos. This is a map from 1934, showing the concentration and location of Chicago's blacks in the middle of a period that saw their proportion swell from less than two percent of the city's population to around a third. It hasn't changed much nearly a century later, and the story isn't much different in our other major cities. This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates means when he invokes the "half-assed social contract" handed down to black people, the way we ignore that America turned its own citizens into a refugee population.

We don't like to talk about this, and so we talk around it instead. We get conversations about rap lyrics, referenda on saggy pants. We get rules and hourlong specials devoted to the forms of racism rather than any exploration of the thing itself. We don't talk about where it comes from, or how it expresses itself. We don't even talk about what it actually meant for Richie Incognito to call Jonathan Martin a "half-nigger piece of shit," or the power dynamic in play there--a dynamic that doesn't change if you take one freighted word out of Richie Incognito's vocabulary. The word "nigger" didn't give Incognito license to terrorize the guy he perceived as his lesser; it gave him a tool.

Another part of history, though, is change. In ESPN's strongest segment, a camera crew went to Teaneck High School in New Jersey to tape kids' reactions to the word. Many of them used it and heard it all the time. Most of the time, they were unfazed, because of its context. The sight of their young faces, mixed in among those of older dudes like Mean Joe Greene, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jason Whitlock, did more than anything else to show how much this debate was about a generation gap. Older folks hear the word, and it immediately summons all sorts of specters--the violence Whitlock described, maybe, or the memory of indignities endured. Younger folks hear the word now and--depending on the context--shrug. (I'm 25. I say "nigga" all day, every day, and can't remember once directing the word at someone in unironic derision or hatred.)

The evolution of the word is pretty unfathomable and even tragic to many old people, but it's no less real for being resisted by the sort of people who furrow their brows on news specials. There's something healthy about it, in any case. It acknowledges the situational nature of language, that context matters.

In this respect, the NFL's proposed rule is hilariously wrongheaded. It plucks the word out of context, out of history, fixing a precise value on the use of a racial slur. Players are penalized 15 yards for saying "nigger"--not five or 10, or 20 yards, or a down, but 15 yards. Worse than holding, not as bad as intentional grounding. The rule is meant to stop a mountain troll like Incognito from looking across the line of scrimmage at a black player and calling him "nigger." But if such a rule were ever implemented and interpreted with the NFL's usual literal-mindedness, it would only end up policing and punishing more young black men who grew up with the word as a term of endearment than white men who would wield it with malice. Does anyone really think that a black player congratulating a teammate with "My nigga!" is using the same word that Richie Incognito was using?

Ultimately, the problem with the NFL's rule is the problem with Sunday's Around the Horn-as-Outside the Lines show. They both approach "nigger" as a question of manners, a do-and-don't, a first-order concern rather a second-order one that may (Incognito) or may not (Cooper) illuminate more serious blind spots within the league. The problem isn't the word "nigger." The problem is racism. Nothing is accomplished by conflating the two.

Greg Howard, a former reporter for the Dallas Observer, now works for Deadspin, where he writes about race and soccer and occasionally falls down on the job.

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38 comments
Sotiredofitall
Sotiredofitall topcommenter

Can't wait for a game to be delayed while they play "Did not"  "Did too"  "Did not"  "Did too"  "Did not"  "Did too""Did not"  "Did too" and on and on and on and on

tdkisok
tdkisok

Hey, If a black person can say "nigger then so can I!!!!    'Merica!! 

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

I doubt Ta-Nehesi Coates would go live in Englewood.


The south side ghetto in Chicago has less to do with skin color than with money and class, and in this world it takes a little class to get ahead.


People today segregate along dollar signs.


As for a bunch of football players, who cares? They get paid obscene amounts of money to play games, so what if they call each other names?

ruddski
ruddski

Honestly, I'm pretty surprised that any white player would toss that word out and not get his ass handed to him off the field. I'm surprised anyone actually would in the first place. Black on black, yeah, but c'mon, man, sheesh.

There's trash talk, then there's severe ass-whoopin talk.

huhi3139
huhi3139

How did the Black African American community come about seeing and using the n-word as a term of endearment?Just what is the true significance of their use of the word n**ga?The answers to these questions and much more are revealed in the following publication which was released on February 10, 2014:

https://www.createspace.com/4655015

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

The football field is a workplace.  If you used slurs at your job you'd be fired.  The NFL is actually being lenient to its staff. 

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Referring to the 1934 Chicago map and the accompanying comments about segregation:  would someone please explain why Chicago and Illinois received a bye on the Voting Rights Act of 1964.


I have traveled a great deal in this country, pretty much all over the lower 48.  Some of the most profound racism that I have encountered has been in the Upper Midwest and Northeast.

ruddski
ruddski

If a black is conservative, then "house n*****r" or "Uncle Tom" is perfectly acceptable.

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

I stopped watching football after laying witness to Deion Sanders performing the extended version of his "Christ The Redeemer" at midfield.

The Cowboys were behind 20 points late in the 4th quarter but we all had to pause for Primetime Showtime.

A few watches this year looks like the affliction has not abated.

What player was it that ran off the field sobbing?

Somebody just shoot me.

ruddski
ruddski

Nowadays, "trash talk" must be referred to as "disposable chatter", and on the West coast, it's "recyclable utterance". In Denver and Seattle, it's now "Mexican crap", unless one of the players is in fact of Mexican heritage, in which you can't say nothin' at all.

Now, about those X an O things...

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

I had a real problem with that word in the Marines.  My troops would flick it as a term of endearment or derision.  I finally had enough and had the platoon sergeant call a formation so I could rant (issue a period of instruction in Human Relations, which was required of me once a week).  Two birds, one stone.

I just gave them a direct order - two weeks extra duty, two weeks restricted to the company area and a dock in pay.  Second offense - brig time.

See? no problem.

My platoon sergeant, who happened to be darker of skin than me, casually commented later that I had to be white in the first place to be offended.

Maybe so, platoon sergeant, maybe so.

ruddski
ruddski

However, "Niggah" is acceptable, but only if a black football player uses it, in keeping with rules from the Central Committee.

Oh crap, I just used a phrase deemed racist yesterday, but in my defense, I did not get the update from the Commissar until this AM, before I had my Earl Grey. There goes my latest TV show!

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

You are wrong for so many reasons, too many to list here.  It is an ugly word that inflicts pain on human beings, like the awful words used to refer to Jews, Gays, Mexicans, Italians, etc., by hateful people who probably hate themselves the most. 

ruddski
ruddski

You can also kick a pit bull, or yank a bull's balls. In fact, you can slap a Bengal tiger.

Be sure to videotape for us!

ruddski
ruddski

@monte

Visit a diverse HS cafeteria, the kids segregate by race/national origin.

I'm sure that there are sub-groups based on economic or educational levels, etc, but in most cases I've seen in my travels, birds of a feather chiefly flock together. But there's enough inter-mixing on the edges to mongrelize, and improve societies that are truly diverse.

But the core of the community usually prefer like neighbors. Some more than others.

PlanoDave
PlanoDave

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz Says the woman who has likely never set foot inside a locker room in her entire life...


The battlefield is a workplace, too.  If I lob grenades at people in my job, I will likely get fired.


SMH

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul  I agree that there's racism in the Upper Midwest and the Northeast as well as the South.  But the South had slavery, fought a war to keep it, lost, then established Jim Crow laws, which had to be struck down by federal law.  

roo_ster
roo_ster

@ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul  

The VRA64 was used by northern whites to expiate their sins from the backs of the south. If they pointed and shrieked loud enough, no one was supposed to notice that many cities in the north were just as segregated.  And some northern cities had mf-ing RIOTS when *their* schools were desegregated.



dingo
dingo

@holmantx  

I prefer the HS games nowadays.

You don't see to much gloating or trash talking because the refs will flag you for 15 and the kids realize it's extra windsprints during the next week's practice. 

 

JackJett
JackJett

@holmantx I assume you are talking about the use of the N word by both Blacks and Whites.  And I always hear about Marines will carry the rules they learn as Marines throughout their entire life.  So hopefully your various levels of punishment (which seem fair) would also carry through. 


Not sure what period in history you are discussing but wonder if you would do the same today if you heard someone using homophobic slang.   If you would be able to set your own personal feelings aside and issue the same direct orders.


Lastly and totally O/T, but I have read with interest the recent stories of male rape in the Marines.  If you haven't heard I can send you the link.   As long as I have been gay, I have never heard of male on male rape and for the life of me can not wrap my head around it. (no pun intended if indeed there is a pun to be found)  To you, is this another example of that rape is far more about power than sex?  A rational person would assume that if you want sex that bad, you can always find a sex worker and make everyone happy.   Just interested in your thoughts. 

ruddski
ruddski

My son, who served in the years under Willie and George, says the common term was "neeeeeeegro" as in "wassup, neeeeeegro"

Voot
Voot

@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz So when you use the word "tea-bagger" to refer to mothers who don't want their kids' futures governed to benefit Goldman Sachs or Big Pharma, are you just a little girl innocently using words she doesn't know the meanings of?


Just so you know, a "tea-bagger" is a homosexual who drags his scrotum through another guy's mouth, so when you use that reference derisively, you're just exploiting gays negatively to your own ends, no differently than if you'd sneer and call your political target a "jungle bunny".

ruddski
ruddski

So when a black man uses that word against a fellow black, who hates who?

Back in the day when blacks and whites got along, my black friends used the N word freely, as a white person would use "white trash", to denote lower class blacks.

Of course, this was before the term "black" was used, back then it was "Afro-American" then later "African American", and folks wore their picks in their 'fro's, and white chicks dropped trou at the flick of a pick 'cause it was hip. You dig?

Sooooooooouuuuuuul train!

losingmyreligion
losingmyreligion

@roo_ster @ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul Relatively few organized lynchings there, though, y'know? And relatively few state-wide, systematic efforts at black voter disenfranchisement, like poll taxes, literacy exams and, oh, voter ID laws. These, in fact, were precisely what the Voting  Rights Act of 1964 was intended to address, and not simply getting called ugly names.

ruddski
ruddski

@tpfkap

Is that a direct quote from Obama, or are you paraphrasing his stance on Ukraine?

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

@ruddski  

there were many variants.  I had enough of it.

JackJett
JackJett

@Voot @Myrna.Minkoff-Katz Just so you know...you are close but no cigar when it comes to tea bagging as a gay sexual activity.  And I don't find the use of tea bagging as a sexual practice offensive at all anymore than you might find some slang for a straight sexual activity.  Now, if "jungle bunny" is some slang for straight sex, then I get your point.   Other than that, one is slang for enjoyment while the other is derogatory.


Also, I thought that it was initially the Tea Party that started using Tea Bagging prior to understanding it was also a gay sexual activity.  They were using it as reference to the Boston Tea Party.   I could be wrong on this.   It was also it was primarily a group that was protesting the bail out of financial institutions and thus they should be in a celebratory mood as they have paid back their loans PLUS interest.  


Let me know if you would like a more detailed insight into the world of tea bagging.  Or check with Rick Santorum as he seems to know more about gay sexuality than I do. 

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

@Voot  I never use that term.  BTW, Goldman Sachs employs the wife of T-baggie Ted Cruz.

Daniel
Daniel

@Voot @Myrna.Minkoff-Katz  Yes, Voot, white Christian males are actually the most oppressed class on Earth -- your self-pity is entirely justified. Even just saying the word "tea," let alone the monstrous formation "tea bagger" is actually morally worse and more oppressive than publicly lynching a black man. In every important respect, it;'s the exact same thing! That old guy on Fox told me so.

doublecheese
doublecheese

@Voot @Myrna.Minkoff-Katz  I wonder why it was homophobic for Alec Baldwin to call somebody a cocksucker, but it's not homophobic for people on the left to call conservatives tea-baggers.

ruddski
ruddski

These days, if you want to denote someone who is governed by Goldman Sachs, Big Pharma, Insurance companies and labor unions, you use the term "Obama"

And gaining popularity because no cursing is involved is the term "That's the biggest pile of Barack I ever heard".

Incidentally, in my family which spent a few years in Muslim Indonesia, the word for "shit" was, phonetically "bearok", as it was in Sumatra. (I'm not joking on that one)

Daniel
Daniel

@ruddski  "Back in the day when blacks and whites got along ..." Gee, let me guess. That was all of human history before January 20, 2009. Do I win a stuffed bear or something?

ruddski
ruddski

I've been told (by blacks) that blacks use the term(s) partly because they know it makes white folks uncomfortable, and that the worse the rap lyrics are, the louder it gets played at stop lights and gas stations for the same reason.

According to them, white folks are the most uptight muthaf***kahs around, and it's fun to take advantage of it.

ruddski
ruddski

@doublecheese

Simple, because "liberals" having freed the blacks with the welfare state, make all the rules concerning racism. They decide which terms are acceptable, which blacks are "authentic", and that power to destroy is the biggest arrow in the lefty sling.

That's why Obama, who grew up more privileged than many whites and as far away from the "American Black Experience as any white surfer stoner, is more "black" than Condi Rice or Justice Thomas - who actually did live the "experience".

Until blacks and other minorities wise up to this new exploitative and fascist system white lefties invented for them, and discover the two-party system, liberal democrats don't really have to do shit except pay lip service and play Joe McCarthy. Leftists are the new slavemasters.

How's things gotten for blacks under "black" Obama? According to many, worse than ever.

Someday, people will actually heed Dr King's magic words. Lefties simply don't, they are users, not saviors.

ruddski
ruddski

@Daniel

I was really referring to personal experience/history. In HS, there was no racial divide, we all got along, but this was a wealthy CT town.

When my black friends visited me later in a Florida, in the early 70's it was nasty. Total segregation. I had one friend denied entry to a Pompano beachfront bar, which resulted in a bit of a melee in which my nose was broken for a second time.

Blacks simply did not cross Dixie Highway. Never, ever would you see a black man on A1A, Ocean blvd, or anywhere near the beach, except at my house, on Ocean Blvd.

I had black friends that worked at Pompano juvie, we'd hang in the front lawn drinking Early Times and tossing frisbee, and man did that piss people off, especially the beachfront condo owners across the street, who would call the cops all the time.

That was how I was able to hit bars across Dixie, had I gone alone, my life expectancy would have been less than a minute.

BUT, in the mid sixties, as a kid, I lived in Palm Beach, and we'd ride bicycles across Dixie all the time with no problem. Never hassled once. Weird, eh?

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