At the end of the 2014 NFL owners meetings in Orlando, the Competition Committee voted on issues concerning player safety and officiating. But perhaps the most interesting issue was the one that didn’t make it to the voting phase — the banning of the n-word.
When news of a possible ban on the n-word first made its way around the league, several players, commentators and fans voiced their opinions in favor and in opposition of the change.
Seattle Seahawks’ cornerback Richard Sherman said in an interview with Sports Illustrated that African-Americans were unfairly targeted by the possible ban.
“It’s an atrocious idea,” Sherman said. “It’s almost racist, to me. It’s weird they’re targeting one specific word. Why wouldn’t all curse words be banned then?”
Sherman also said the way it is used, dropping the hard –er ending in place of an –a ending, changes the meaning.
Sports journalist Stephen A. Smith said in an interview on ESPN’s SportsCenter that he agreed the ban was unfairly targeting one group of players.
“Who outside the black community doesn’t know that it’s not a word that you need to be uttering to black folks or in the company of black folks?” Smith asked.
Later on ESPN’s First Take, Smith said the real insult around the possible ban derived from the people who would vote on it — non-African-Americans.
“I’m going to say this respectfully to people outside of the black community, particularly white people, who the hell do you think you are,” Smith said. “It’s crossing a line.”
In the end, Rich McKay, committee chair and president of the Atlanta Flacons, said the ban was not voted on because a current rule already addresses this issue, and he’s somewhat right.
“Using abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League” is banned according to a subsection of Rule 12 in the players’ handbook.
But does the n-word fall into this category? According to an interview with Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin with the News Tribune, African-Americans have turned the word into a term of endearment. African-American players never hear the word used towards them in a disrespectful way on the field and members of the “opposite race” don’t use it, Baldwin said. And like Sherman said, just avoid that hard –er ending and voila, you have a new meaning.
So is the n-word covered in this abusive, threating or insulting clause of Rule 12? No, but I think it should be, and I think referees have been sleeping on the job.
I have a question for Baldwin. How exactly do you interpret the word “endearment”? As I understand it, a term of endearment is a word or expression used to address people we care for. I would never use the n-word at the end of “Goodnight, I love you,” when tucking my 8-year-old nephew in or when talking to my roommate, and both of them are African-American.
But wait, I fall under the “opposite race” category and am therefore in violation of the “it’s for us, not them,” unwritten rule. Maybe those who abide by this rule are right. But I don’t want to live in an us-versus-them world that separates me from the people I love, and I don’t want my nephews to live in one either.
When I talk about this controversial issue with my African-American friends and family members, I get various responses. Some of my friends tell me I can use the n-word around them because they know me, and they know I’m not racist. But the very fact that you have to analyze my character before I use the word says something about the issue.
Maybe I have no right to join in on this conversation. After all, I’m a Mexican-American. Just because I have African-American relatives and friends doesn’t mean I have a say. Well if you have to be African-American to have a voice on this topic, then I’m glad Hall of Famer Harry Carson, who played 13 seasons for the New York Giants, agrees with me.
“I find it very disheartening that in our society today we’re having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment,” Carson said in the same Sports Illustrated article. “If that’s a term of endearment, go up to your grandfather, or an elderly black person, and use it on them. See how they react. For those who use it, I say they have no sense of history.”
As a writer, it goes without saying that free speech is a precious part of our democracy, and I never want to see it unnecessarily weakened. But how many times did I use the term “n-word” instead of spelling out the word? The answer is every time. I am not allowed to use that word at work and neither should athletes.
What if, instead of listening to Sherman and just dropping the hard –er, athletes just drop the word altogether and act like the role models they’re supposed to be for young people watching the sport such as my 8-year-old nephew who, by the way, I hope Sherman never meets for fear he would find him too endearing and call him by a racial slur.
Paula Solis is a senior journalism major from Houston. She is a staff writer for The Lariat.