It’s been about a month since I posted anything about football. I hadn’t planned on breaking my silence quite so soon, but then the NFL proposed a new rule that would penalize teams fifteen yards for any on-field use of the so called N word. Okay, I can’t even pretend to be an authority on this subject. I talk a lot but I doubt I’ve used that particular word more than once or twice in my life. I don’t like it. I’m not comfortable with it. I really don’t think it has any place in today’s society. But again who am I to say?
This is clearly a hot button topic, and no wonder. I doubt there’s another word in the English language where the meaning changes so drastically based on who’s speaking and who’s being spoken to. ESPN analyst and former NFL player and coach Herm Edwards said, “The definition has gone from bondage to bond.” That’s true, and it would be great if it ended right there. We’re unfortunately not dealing with anything quite so cut and dry.
Here’s a quick history lesson. The word nigger has been around since the 1600’s. At that time, it was completely neutral and referred to anyone with dark skin. A couple hundred years later, nigger was thrown around as casually as dude, and could be used in connection with anyone regardless of skin color. By around 1900, however, the usage had changed once again and it was considered racist, pejorative and highly offensive. And today, depending on the circumstances, depending on who’s talking and who’s listening, the N word can have any of those meanings and be interpreted in any number of different ways. You can see how that might lead to problems.
Although I applaud the National Football League for trying to clean up their image, especially on the heels of the bullying scandal involving Jonathan Martin, Richie Incognito and a handful of other Miami Dolphins players, coaches and trainers, I can’t help thinking they’re going about this the wrong way. I mean, do we really want to put such a sensitive and potentially inflammatory issue in the less than trustworthy hands of our NFL officials? These guys have screwed up a coin toss and, on occasion, have been known to miscount how many downs have been played. Hey, we all make mistakes and that profound level of incompetence is rarely exhibited. Instead, officials routinely demonstrate their inability to judge complex issues like determining which team actually has the ball. They constantly botch calls on pass interference, possession, illegal blocks, holding, etc, etc. Do you know why officials wear black and white? It’s because that’s all they can see, and I mean that in a strictly metaphorical sense. They know the rules, but interpreting those rules often presents a problem. How many times have we seen this? The quarterback drops back to pass. A defender comes in low because he knows what will happen if he makes contact anywhere above the shoulder pads. Right before impact, the quarterback ducks into the defender’s outstretched hand. Next thing you know, that defender, who did everything right, gets a fifteen yard personal foul for an illegal hit to the head. According to the rule book, the official made the correct call, even though based on the circumstances, the flag never should have been thrown. NFL officials don’t do shades of gray. I ask again, do we really want to put these guys in charge of something that has a lot more to do with society than sports? If this new rule is put in place, will officials have to try to judge whether or not the word was used with malice? Or, will the flag be thrown regardless? In other words, is it still a penalty if a player uses the N word while congratulating a teammate? That doesn’t seem to make much sense. And here’s one more thing to consider. Roughly seventy percent of all NFL players are black. Is it still a racial issue if they’re the ones using the word? More important, will it become so if a white official is making these calls?