ABOVE PHOTO: Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (68) and tackle Jonathan Martin (71) stand on the field during NFL football practice in Davie, Fla. Pending free agency and a racially charged bullying scandal could add up to a completely overhauled Miami Dolphins offensive line and some players looking for a job. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)
By Earl Ofari Hutchinson
If it doesn’t buckle to pressure 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 for the N- word 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 public politically correct speech, no White NFL player would dare purse his lips to shout the dreaded racial epithet at a Black player. Remember what happened to Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper who was nailed using the N- Word in a drunken rant on a cell cam and had to all but prostrate himself before the league and his team mates 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 team mate Jonathan Martin as for bullying and harassing him. There is a legion of white celebrities, politicians, and personalities who have gotten caught using the word in recent times have been publicly whipped into near extinction because of it.
So it’s the black players who’d 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 the 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, funny, and there’s absolutely no shock value in it anymore, and have purged it from their act or toned down on using 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 to 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 emotional 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. Nigger can’t and never will be made acceptable, no matter whose mouth it comes out of or what excuse is tossed out for using it.
The fall back 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 that 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 where Whites (and other non-Blacks) taunt, and harass Blacks by calling them nigger, spray paint the word on their homes, businesses, churches, 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 at the top of the stack 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 a grotesque and deadly meaning to it. 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, the endearment silliness notwithstanding, and there’s nothing in the First Amendment that protects that. Nor is there anything that prohibits a private entity should as the NFL, or any other business, from regulating the conduct, mannerism, and behavior of its employees which is what the players are as a condition of employment.
There’s yet one more reason the NFL should act. The NFL is the gold standard for sport in America and it packs a wallop in influencing youngsters on and off the gridiron, their parents, and its oceans 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 players language which can’t be separated from the conduct that 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.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent MSNBC contributor. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network. Follow Earl Ofari Hutchinson on Twitter: http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson