The issue of the N-word comes and goes in sports, and it popped up again last week, amid the NFL pondering whether to slap a 15-yard penalty on its use during a game. If the NFL enacts its “bad language’’ reform, a second use of the N-word could lead to a player’s ejection.
Were Martin Luther King Jr. still alive, would he believe we’re still struggling with this nonsense? Or Jackie Robinson? Or anyone with enough institutional memory to recall the kind of institutionalized hate that once existed in our country?
And, look, when I write “once existed,’’ I’m not naive. For all the strides America has made on the subjects of race and gender since the mid-20th century, it’s easy to identify the vast inequalities (or worse) that perpetuate today. While some may be muted, others remain draped in the disguise of semantics or masked by outright lies, even laws. We are far from perfect. Sadly, perfect doesn’t exist, be it in our 50 states or anywhere else.
Count me among the many who would support the NFL eradicating the N-word from the playing field. No surprise there. I’m a 60-something white guy who grew up in America, educated over years to realize the N-word was as vile as, well, as vile as it was, as it is, as it ever will be.
I also grew up in America where as a kid I was frequently called “frog’’ because of my French-Canadian heritage, something I hadn’t thought about in at least 20 years until last week when I reexamined how I felt about the N-word. There is no true comparison between the two, I realize, and if someone called me a ‘‘frog” today, I guess I’d laugh it off, maybe fashion a joke from the fragments of fractured French I’ve assembled over the years.
My father was fluent in French, learned in Canada when he moved back to Quebec with his mother during the Great Depression. But he was loath to speak it, I’m sure in part because he grew up in an America that neither celebrated nor embraced differences. Thus the term “frog.” My father throughout his life chose to say little in either of his languages. True of many WWII vets.
Actually, John Wooten, who chairs the NFL watchdog group (Fritz Pollard Alliance) that brought the N-word to the fore last week, wants it nowhere near the playing field. As the story broke, he told CBS Sports he would prefer it “eliminated completely.’’
“We want the word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room,’’ said Wooten, whose FPA focuses most on the league’s hiring policies specific to race. He added, “I will be totally shocked if the [NFL’s] Competition Committee does not uphold us on what we are trying to do.’’
We all know this is a no-brainer. The NFL has nothing to lose, and maybe not all that much to gain, in drawing yet one more line across its field, this time to prohibit the use of a racial vulgarity. For all the retired NFL players walking around these days with addled brains, I wish someone long ago had been as vigilant in capturing the league’s attention in regard to smacks to the head. Similar concern 20, 30, 40 years ago would have saved many a great amount of pain, some even their lives. As offensive as the N-word is, it’s just a word, not a life-and-death issue.
We also know the issue here is far beyond a bunch of white, rich, shield-first-thinking NFL owners mustering up to do the right thing. It’s now most about the largest segment of the NFL workforce, the group that is some 70 percent African-American, ending its use of the racial epithet that it chiefly perpetuates. And that’s where this gets very tricky, complex, even bizarre.
What we have here, while the NFL ponders what’s right/wrong in its workplace, is a very large group of 20-something black NFL players who, we witness time and again, have no issue whatsoever with the word. In fact, they like it. They feel they own it. White America first owned it, mouthed it as a vulgar instrument of hate, ultimately was shamed into letting it go. Previously repulsed by it, Black America then inherited it (some gift), and for the last quarter-century, if not more, has embraced it. On certain radio stations in this country, it can be heard on song after song, to the lament of few, or at least not enough.
I think of the N-word, I think of a brave Rosa Parks refusing the back of the bus.
I think of the N-word, I think of Birmingham and four girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church.
I think of the N-word, I think of fire hoses and tear gas beating down Freedom Fighters.
I think of the N-word, I think of the good fights won by Jackie Robinson, Willie O’Ree.
I think of the N-word, I think of MLK, his words, his dream, his coffin.
I think of the N-word, I think of cowards and killers dressed in their ghostly white KKK sheets.
The list goes on and on. Whatever comes to mind when you think of the N-word, of course, is a product of many things. Such as the color of your skin. Such as the date and place on your birth certificate. Such as what you may have learned at home, at school, in church, on the ballfield or street corner or at the water cooler.
If the NFL succeeds, or even only half succeeds, in removing the N-word from its workplace, it will be a tremendous victory. But it will not be the NFL as an institution that wins this one flag at a time, 15 yards at a clip, or over the booted rear end of an ejected player.
The league’s fight against the N-word will be won or lost by the young African-Americans in the NFL who will have to decide if they want to continue to own, even glorify, a word that lingers in the vernacular as an insult to everyone. Their forefathers waged and won a far more courageous battle. They don’t need a commissioner, players’ union, rules committee, or an aging white sports columnist to remind them of that.
They need only to look within, summon their sense of self, think of what that word truly means. And let it go. For all of us. And for good.