N-word? Please.


In 2014 the National Football League implemented a new rule, or rather started enforcing an existing rule more heavily, that will begin penalizing players that use any abusive language, including all forms of the dreaded N-word.  F.o.R. panelists Kyle and J-Mal took the bait and debated the existence and enforcement of this rule:

Kyle: So my problem with the N-word debate (besides the constant use of “the N-word” by people who look like they would be more comfortable changing colostomy bags than saying the actual word) is that it “the Shield” is continually trying to justify implementation of a rule by calling it a matter of unsportsmanlike conduct. You remember that scene in “Blue Chips” where Neon Boudeaux stands up in his English Literature class, cuts off his professor, and tells him that the class is culturally biased? That’s how I feel about the League’s attempts to legislate the N-word. At no point has the League stepped into to curb the uses of other “threatening” language. Ask any player who has been in the trenches – at any level, high school and up – and the things you will hear about, the insults and attempts to get at one another are mind-boggling.

The problem for the highly visible, highly audible NFL is that there is no way to possibly govern the use of the single most still-in-rotation entrenched, embedded “slur” in existence. Imagine referee Mike Pereira having to come on your screen and discuss whether or not Baltimore Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley should have been flagged for jumping up and exclaiming “Yeah, nigga!” after sacking Andrew Luck. It’ll be Riley Freeman/Mr. Petto all over again. What’s worse, I can’t even think of examples to type where someone would just randomly yell out “nigga/er” on the field to begin with!

49’ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was penalized and fined for his alleged use of the N-word during an NFL game in 2014. We’re just as confused as he appears to be.

Which briefly brings us to Colin Kaepernick, and his alleged “flinging” of the n-word at Lamarr Houston. Really? How does one fling the word? This isn’t Riley Cooper claiming he’ll beat every nigger’s ass at the Kenny Chesney concert (an incredible feat, indeed! Black people loved The Road and The Radio). What’s worse is that both players deny the word was used to begin with! How in the great blue sky is the League going to handle levying 15-yard penalties for things the referees think they heard?

Trash talk is indelible to professional sports, and what the world knows is that Black people invented the language. Ever heard of jive? On every basketball court, makeshift football field, and in every gym in every city in America, people are trash talking. I believe it was Jason Whitlock or Michael Wilbon who made that point crystal clear. And as the purveyors of trash talk language, we’ve taken what was used in the street and brought it with us at every level. It just so happens that the dreaded n-word came along for the ride. But, let’s be real: Kevin Garnett didn’t get fined for “reportedly” calling Charlie Villanueva, known alopecia sufferer, a cancer patient, so imagine what the League would look like trying to listen out for every slur and every piece of trash talk. They’d have to call in NFL Films for audio post-game just to go back and catch it all. Or, every player would be “Mic’d Up” and it’d be up to ESPN to report to the Goodell Gang. I’m throwing a flag on this one.

J-Mal: You mention that “Trash talk is indelible to professional sports.”  While this is true, I am not sure that is what the NFL is trying to legislate against.  Come to think of it, I don’t know what the NFL is really trying to accomplish with this rule. Rule 12, section 3, article 1 of the NFL rulebook states that the “use of abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the League” is prohibited and will result in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

Is saying the N-word in and of itself abusive, threatening, or insulting?  And therein lies the question that the NFL cannot answer because the word itself is confounded and rooted in so many different phases of American culture it is too difficult to sort out.

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper insisted he would “fight every nigger” at the Kenny Chesney concert he was attending. Rumor has it, two dudes got a little worried.

This article published in November from the Washington Post does an amazing job at flushing out the myriad of details surrounding the N-word and its new-found policy-fame in the NFL.  The authors describe the incidents of Riley Cooper and his concert rant, Richie Incognito calling his teammate Johnathan Martin a “half-nigger,” and Trent Williams using some undisclosed slur to an official.  To me, those seem like the abusive, threatening, or insulting language to opponents, teammates, or officials.  This is what the league is hoping to rid itself of.

In this same article, however, the authors quote Donte Stallworth, a former NFL wide receiver saying, “If I ran a double move on [an opposing defensive back] and he grabbed me, I would say something like, ‘Nigga quit holding me.’” He continued to say in the article “It’s nothing negative. It doesn’t hurt my feelings.  It doesn’t hurt his feelings. It’s not meant to incite. [But] now, that [word] would get me a [penalty] flag.

Yes Donte.  Yes it would.

So again I question, what is the NFL really trying to do here?

The prevailing belief is that the words “nigga” and “nigger” have two different meanings, with two different connotations.  Cooper and Incognitio offered a very different sentiment in their use of “nigger,” than Stallworth did in his use of “nigga.”  The NFL is actually attempting to legislate a word regardless of context.  Is saying, “Nice play my nigga” the same as saying, “Go sit down nigger?”

I believe the NFL needs to think long and hard about the slippery slope they are traversing with this rule and identify what will bring real change to the language and treatment of individuals in their game.

Moving forward, Stallworth offered a possible solution to this N-word conundrum facing our society.  He stated “Let evolution happen.  Let pop culture take that word away to the ocean, and let anyone use it… That word’s not meant for us anymore. ‘Nigga’ is a part of pop culture.  It’s just a word, but it shouldn’t be chained to us (Black America)… It shouldn’t be a part of who we are.”

Since you already threw a flag on the rule Kyle, what do you two think about Stallworth’s comments?  I think I actually agree with him.

Kyle: Okay, so at least we can agree that saying the word is not de facto abusive, threatening, or insulting. There’s just too much nuance to suggest otherwise. That’d be like calling a penalty because you heard a player say “fag” (“…I was asking for a cigarette, Mr. Goodell!”) or “gay” (“…but we are having so much fun playing this gay old game, sir!”). When you have to impute intent during the course of play in order to levy discipline, the slope is automatically too slippery.

Now if we’re talking about ridding the game of hate speech, that’s different. There is no place for that, and Richie Incognito proved it. However, that’s off the field – and isn’t there an anti-hazing policy somewhere? Plus, I think that was an in-house issue that the Miami Dolphins needed to handle; something that the League needs an overarching governing policy to…govern, that enables each club the leeway to deal with disciplining individually. But I digress.

What Donte Stallworth is suggesting is that we simply re-appropriate the word in some sort of “take back the nigg_” movement. I’m not so sure I can get on that train. I do agree with the concept that language the social construction of race have hit a tipping point. Post-racial America teaches us that the construct, itself, no longer matters. The Yes We Can/Yes We Did’ers have somehow convinced themselves, and others, that since a Black man has become the official and recognized leader of the Free World, race and racialism no longer exist. First of all, we know that’s not true. And secondly, there is absolutely no way that one present event can automatically erase all of the history that led to it. I don’t want to go too far afield on this one, but you can’t possibly begin to tell me, Donte, that society and pop culture have evolved to a point where history has become irrelevant. I can only imagine the first time in a world where nigg_ is decriminalized when a non-Black person utters the phrase directly at you, J-Mal. I’m not talking about a crowd of non-Black people singing along with “Gold Digger” at the bar. I’m talking about running into someone you may have met once, looking you in your eye, and simply uttering “what up, nigga?” Or even tossing out a “niggggguhhh….” while you’re telling a story. Granted, I think we’ve hit the time in life where it makes less and less sense for the word to be a part of our vernacular, but imagine college-aged you walking across campus. I don’t know about you, but I would bristle automatically. Hell, even the thought makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

Just needed an excuse to use this image. Mission: accomplished.

To say “nigga” is just a word is to say that beer is just a drink. Sure, it’s true on its face, but it’s impossible to ignore what else comes along with it. Donte isn’t asking that Black America take the word back; he’s asking us to give it away. And I, for one, am not ready to give that power over to the masses. It was used to degrade, defile, and yes define us for so long. We’ve turned it into a cultural norm. But it is not up to us to have to explain that norm to the world and let them in. Call it our unfortunate inside joke…but it’s still ours.

I’m guessing you feel differently…

J-Mal: I actually do feel differently.  Not because I am some leftist, progressive, “We are the World,” millennial.  But because I do not want to see the “Nigga/Nigger, we can say it, and y’all can’t nor should you want to,” debate dragged on for another 15-20 years.  The fact that it has permeated the athletic arena to a point that, not only are there rules legislating the word/s, but they are actually throwing penalty flags when it is said on the field.

In September 2014, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whom we all assume is half-Black, half-question mark, was not only penalized on the field, but also fined just over $11k out-of-pocket for his use of “inappropriate language” that everyone assumes was the N-word. If he did say it were his intentions to abuse and threaten his opponent? Or is this just the language that he has been socialized to use?

The Washington Post article references the NAACP’s attempt at a mock “funeral” for the N-word. Even they realize that gesture misses the mark at really galvanizing change. “The word is too essential as an urban slang term to be placed in a casket and buried, as NAACP delegates attempted to do in a 2007 mock “funeral” for the word. It is too ingrained in youth culture to be eliminated from city streets, as the New York City Council attempted with a symbolic resolution banning the word the same year. And more than likely, it will prove too complex and nuanced to be policed by football referees wielding yellow flags and penalties.”

The NAACP symbolically burying the word nigga is the equivalent of anti-firearm organizations symbolically burying a handgun. Not sure what it actually accomplishes.

If you want to understand how absurd a “funeral” for the N-word is, you could listen to any rap album on the shelves today, or just continue reading the aforementioned Washington Post article.  Comedian/actor Tehran Von Ghasri, who claims Black and Iranian heritage, is quoted saying “[Nigga is] such a regular part of my vernacular. It’s a word I use everyday.” He goes on to admit that he is a self-proclaimed “nigga-addict.”

Now I’m not one of those niggas that actually likes to say nigga, but how are we gonna rid American society of the word nigga, when we have niggas like this nigga being addicted to saying nigga?

So again the question is what are we really aiming for? I agree with you K. that young, college-aged J-Mal would have flipped out if any non-Black person addressed me, even in the friendliest way, with a “what it do my nigga?” greeting.  But now, in my older years, I find this debate to be so painfully circular that something has to give. Maybe it is just really separating the two different words, and educating everyone that the word “nigger” is racist, and the word “nigga” is open for all people because it means “dude” or “person” or “peer whom of I am fond.”

What eats my craw is that White America is legislating rules for Black people’s word choices because a word is both racist and friendly; it is just confusing.  It’s like your mother telling you that you can’t date your extra-fine, play cousin because her mother is your mom’s best friend of 25 years and that it’s basically like your sister.  Or something like that.

Richard Sherman went so far as to call the rule racist.  Now the NFL administrative offices, I’m assuming, aren’t exactly a pillar of diversity.  This means that the White commissioner and his band of brothers is legislating a word that is used mostly by Black players.  Does Sherman have a point?

Kyle: Racism versus “disproportionate application of a rule or regulation against one racial group over another.” That seems to be about where we’ve landed on this one. While I would not call the rule itself “racist,” I would certainly say that it is “racially informed.” We all know the truth: Black players would be targeted, watched like hawks, and disproportionately penalized. Point blank, period.

Puppies are dope. Don’t believe me? Just watch.

To say that the word is an “essential” urban slang term swings the pendulum too far. I used to be one of those niggas that liked to say nigga, but I was far from an addict. A few years older and wiser, and a few professional positions later, and now the word is all but removed from my vocabulary (unless I’m being particularly ignorant, or listening to Trinidad James). I agree that the word is far too confusing for it to be legislated against, and agree with Sherman that it is far too loaded to not call to mind racism when you look at a largely white body attempting to govern its use. Not only do I agree with Sherman’s sentiments, I also agree with him that the mainstream media’s use of the word “thug” is the 21st century’s politically correct “nigga.” But, that’s another word to be debated another day.

“Post-racial America” has blended us to the point that everyone feels entitled to be in on our inside joke – and yet, we continually feel like the punchline. Because there is no way to properly assess and consider and legislate and determine the use of the word, I think it is completely out-of-bounds to judge how it is being used at each and every turn. And no, Mr. Website Commenter, creating some sort of Zero Tolerance policy is not the answer either – not because any use of the word is good/better than another, but because COME ON. Is the use of the dreaded N-word, in a mass of humanity consisting of no fewer than 22 burly grown men, so endemic that one single utterance is worth 15 yards and an automatic first down? Bigger fish to fry, NFL. Bigger. Fish. To fry. (And fry some more.)

J-Mal: The NFL definitely has bigger fish to fry. And the biggest fish, Roger Goodell, will never actually be addressed.  It seems like we have found something that we agree on, Kyle. Leave it to Stanford graduate to help us identify that the rule to end racist language is actually racist in and of itself.

What was the impetus behind the original rule in the first place? The rule itself came about because of the Riley Cooper and Richie Incognito incidents.  Two white men used the word “nigger” in reference to two Black men. The league felt as though they had to do something about this, and like we originally stated, their response was the wrong one. Legislating one word does not address the underlying problem of racism, or at the very least, racial misunderstanding in the league. The NFL should focus on helping each of its players understand the complexities of existing in a diverse world.  Instead of penalizing language, the league should be proactive in addressing prejudice and racism before and after players enter the league.

It seems we have tackled the mystery of the racist language rule. The N-word “to be or not to be” question still looms large.  One day it may simply exist as an everyday term for all persons, or it will possibly become ancient slang and meet the fate of “rad” and “gnarley” or the racist terms of “coon” and “jigaboo.”  Until then, we shall just wait for the next word funeral, and the first 15-yard “abusive language” penalty flag of the 2015 season.