Throw that flag
NFL players should be penalized for using the ‘N’ word
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson 03/04/2014
If it doesn’t buckle, the NFL will toss the flag on the “N” word. And make no mistake, despite the NFL’s effort to take the sting out of its proposed penalty flag by calling it a ban on racially offensive chatter on the field, black players will be the ones to get the flag tossed at them.
In this age of rigidly correct political and public speech, no white NFL player would dare purse his lips to shout that dreaded racial epithet at a black player. Remember what happened to Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper who was nailed for using the “N” word in a drunken rant on a cell cam? He had to all but prostrate himself before the league and his teammates to get back in the game.
And there’s Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito who got ripped as much for using the “N” word and other choice racial epithets against teammate Jonathan Martin as for bullying and harassing Martin. The legions of white celebrities, politicians and personalities who have been caught using the word in recent times have been publicly whiplashed into near-extinction for uttering it.
So it’s the black players who would get the flag. And they should, for the very reason that several NFL players, when asked about it, have declared the proposed ban DOA with the shrug and a quip, “Hey, it’s part of the culture.”
Culture? That’s the problem. In times past, a parade of black comedians and rappers had virtually canonized the word. Mercifully, many of them got the message that it’s not hip, cool, or funny, and there’s absolutely no shock value in it anymore. They have purged it from their acts or toned down their use of it.
But that doesn’t seem to include many black ball players who still cling to the lame rationales that the more a black person uses the word the less offensive it becomes. Or, it’s a term of endearment. Or, there’s no offense in it because everyone uses it.
But whether the “N” word is shouted out on the field wrong-headedly as a bonding or common usage term, or simply spit out in a fit of anger and emotion in a highly charged moment on the field, it doesn’t change one fact: Words are not value-neutral. They express concepts and ideas. Often words reflect society’s standards. If color-phobia is a deep-rooted standard in American life, then a word as emotionally charged as “nigger” will always reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. It can’t be sanitized, cleansed, inverted or redeemed as a culturally liberating word. The word “nigger” never will be made acceptable. It doesn’t matter whose mouth it comes out of or what excuse is tossed out for using it.
The fallback argument against an NFL ban is that it’s ridiculous to try and regulate a player’s speech. And, besides, there’s the First Amendment, which gives anyone license to say pretty much whatever they want as long as they don’t libel someone or act on their venomous words. That argument falls apart on two counts. There are still dozens of daily examples in which whites (and other non-blacks) taunt and harass people by calling them “nigger,” spray paint the word on their homes, businesses and churches, and physically assault and even murder blacks. In the FBI’s annual count of hate crimes in America, blacks still make up the overwhelming majority of victims.
The “N “word reigns supreme as the favorite racial epithet hurled at blacks during these crimes. Even when the word isn’t used, the sentiment is that blacks are still fair game to be abused and dehumanized, and the “N” word reinforces that belief. The word “nigger” is and will always have grotesque and deadly meaning to them. And, even if some blacks do occasionally go off the deep end and wrongly harangue whites for using the word, maybe that’s because “nigger” pricks agonizing historical and social sores.
The other is that the “N” word is hate speech, endearment silliness notwithstanding, and there’s nothing in the First Amendment that protects that. Nor is there anything that prohibits a private entity such as the NFL, or any other business, from regulating the conduct, mannerisms and behaviors of its employees, which is what these players are.
There’s yet one more reason the NFL should act. The NFL is the gold standard for sports in America. It packs a wallop when it comes to influencing youngsters on and off the gridiron, their parents and millions of fans. Cleaning up the game, to make it a game worthy of the lofty standard of conduct and decorum that NFL executives repeatedly claim they want to make it, must include the language of players, which can’t be separated from their conduct, which millions watch and are influenced by.
The NFL doesn’t need an instant replay, official box review or official’s huddling on the field, to determine if the flag should be thrown on the “N” word, and that means at its black players. Throw it high for all to see.
Author and political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a frequent MSNBC contributor and an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on American Urban Radio Network and hosts of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KTYM AM 1460 radio in Los Angeles and KPFK-FM 90.7 radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.