Sports have been at the forefront of some controversial discussions lately. The most recent issue surrounds the use of the word, “nigger” and all of its variations, by players in locker rooms and in their respective playing arenas. The National Football League is strongly considering a proposal to charge the team of a player who says the n-word with an automatic 15-yard penalty. As a result, sports journalists have suggested that other sports leagues consider similar measures for their respective games. When asked about penalizing the n-word in the NBA, Chris Bosh answered that all profanity should be penalized instead of one word if a new rule emerged. NBA commissioner Adam Silver spoke about a potential rule change for the n-word during his interview Mike and Mike in the Morning on February 28, 2014.
“So our rules do cover slurs to a certain extent now, and I think, as you guys know, players have been fined for homophobic slurs, racial slurs but it depends on the context in the NBA… I think if a player is screaming it to another player and then, especially in our game where the fans are right on top of the court and then fans can hear it, that’s something already covered by our rules. Of course, when a player like Chris Bosh has a point of view on it, I plan to follow up with Chris and understand his view and talk to our union about it as well. At least at this time we are not considering anything like what I understand the NFL is talking about.”
The NBA family seems in agreement to leave their current policy on language untouched, but the pressure to create additional rules will increase if the NFL passes its proposal. There has been a lot of huffing and puffing on both sides of the argument without actually addressing how language functions, just the moral infallibility of their position. A lecture from Jacques Derrida on deconstruction would be helpful for explaining why giving in-game penalties to athletes for saying the n-word is a false issue, but it’s far too dense for this medium. I’ll do my best to explain it with a different approach.
Words in the same language can have several meanings for a variety of reasons including location. For example, the words “pop,” “sprite,” and “coke” are jargon for soda in different regions of the United States. No, seriously. It could mean any soda. I didn’t say it made sense. I’m not the President of Words. The differences between the same words in American and British English are even more hilarious, and that’s before visiting Urban Dictionary.
There are times when people aren’t sure what a colloquial word in subcultures mean, which makes slang a secret language.
Pay special attention to 0:38. One man is laughing so hard that he can’t sit upright. The lady next to him has no clue what is going on.
Another important factor for the meaning of words is the audience. What may appear offensive to some can be innocent or simply honest to others.
For example, Ted Nugent said of President Barack Obama, “communist-educated, communist-nurtured, subhuman mongrel… like the ACORN community organizer gangster Barack Hussein Obama.”
Nugent later apologized for his words, in particular the use of “subhuman mongrel,” but not to the President: “I do apologize – not necessarily to the President – but on behalf of much better men than myself… I will try to elevate my vernacular to the level of those great men that I’m learning from in the world of politics.”
Improving one’s vernacular does not make them any less of an ass or change the intended message. Words themselves are important, but meaning without context is misguided. The factors are all subjective regardless of how passionate a speaker is or how carefully words are chosen. Language is a gift and a curse – infinitely malleable, governed by the orator and open to judgement by all.
No matter how one feels about the word “nigger,” few will ever argue about the origins of its use in the United States, which are rooted in slavery. What is often debated is who is to blame for the n-word’s current popularity and commonplace use. No one has a concrete answer, but it did not begin with hip hop as so many argue. The conversation is at least four generations old. Books written by African-Americans in the early 20th century use the n-word in both a positive and negative context. Variations of the word such as “negro” were widely used by the U.S. Census, the American Negro League, American Negro Theater, Catholic Negro-American Mission Board and many other organizations.
Negro was also the colloquial word for black people to refer to one another as fellow men and as traitors. The use of negro was considered publicly acceptable than “nigga” is today, but they function the same way in contemporary Black American culture. The distinct polar connotations of negro are clear when Malcolm X breaks it down, there are good negros and bad negros.
By the time the 1970s hit, blaxploitation was putting the word “nigger” in the title of motion picture films.
It is worth mentioning that while the faces on the screen are primarily black, the producers of said films are not. The same goes for hip hop. Even Jay-Z has a boss. If the head honcho wants you to dress a certain way and say certain things, you must acquiesce or be replaced if that’s what they want. The continued push for these images and language is not an accident. It’s business. It takes marketing and a willing consumer. No one is solely to blame.
The most important question about the NFL’s potential new rule to ban the n-word is a simple one – Why? John Wooten is the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance which oversees diversity in the NFL. He has emphatically pushed this proposal with lots of support following the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin controversy. According to CBS Sports, Wooten is confident the rule will be passed: “I will be totally shocked if the competition committee does not uphold us on what we’re trying to do,” Wooten said. “We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room. Secretaries, PR people, whoever, we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere… I think they’re going to do what needs to be done here,” he said. “There is too much disrespect in the game.” Wooten’s intentions are commendable, but completely miss the mark in two very important ways.
The first was thoroughly articulated by Stephen A. Smith during First Take on March 4, 2014.
The issue is the attention that has been brought to one specific word. You should be eradicating all foul and offensive language, period. If they said, “We are eradicating all foul and offensive language,” that would’ve been the end of it. Nobody would have said anything. You brought attention to the n-word because you are bringing attention to how black folks communicate… By allowing such attention to come to one word as opposed to all offensive language, you are highlighting and putting the spotlight on young black men… For old school guys to allow this to go down this way, it’s exactly why a lot of young school guys behind closed doors are like, “Forget them. I ain’t listening to what they have to say because they threw us under the bus.
Mainstream discussion of the n-word has been framed as an issue exclusive to the youngest generation of black people. As mentioned above, that’s not an accurate depiction of the facts.
The second problem is not addressing the frequent arrest of NFL players with the same fervor by introducing deterrents such as capping individual player salaries, mandatory suspensions or league expulsions. According to USA Today, there have been 112 arrests of NFL players since the start of 2012 for everything under the sun. Retired safety Darren Sharper, who was expected to enter the Hall of Fame, has been charged with seven counts of rape and eleven counts of drugging for using Ambien and morphine in over five states to have non-consensual sex. Josh Brent was convicted of intoxication manslaughter for killing Jerry Brown, his Dallas Cowboys teammate, who was a passenger in Brent’s car during a fatal crash in December 2012 on a suburban Dallas highway. Josh Brent had a reported blood-alcohol content of 0.18 during the time of the accident. Sam Hurd was sentenced to 15 years in prison after telling undercover agents that he needed five to ten kilograms of cocaine and 1,000 pounds of weed every week to distribute in Chicago.
Why doesn’t Wooten feel enough shame with the number of arrests and seriousness of these crimes to propose measures that punish or ban players who break the law?
Banning the n-word would not eradicate hatred or inspire change for the masses. Real, impactful progress does not occur at the snap of a finger. Social paradigm shifts are made through gradual improvements in culture. Wooten is a man who went through the difficulties of the civil rights movement and knows this all too well. The NFL’s proposal is pointless and only seeks to give the impression that something has been done to make the locker room more progressive and non-threatening. Sports in general do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to right and wrong. The only universal truth for athletes is that exceptions are made for the talented and the winners.
Maybe once we stop pretending that sports are the moral center of the universe, they can actually be agents of social change instead of passionate impostors.
Featured image courtesy of Steven Covella/Baller Mind Frame.