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When Good Intentions Go Wrong: The NFL 'Nigga' Penalty

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Before I even get into the proposed NFL rule accessing a 15-yard penalty for using the word "nigga" (I refuse to say "N-word" as it is a complete cop-out) in all its iterations on the field, I offer a moment of full disclosure: I don't use the word, or at least I make conscious effort not to. This is mostly in deference to my mother who grew up in the midst of Jim Crow and my great-grandmother who was born into slavery (yes, my family is only three generations out of slavery). I have friends and family who do say "nigga" unflinchingly, and for the most part I pay it little mind.

This week at the behest of John Wooten, whom I have a great level of respect for, and on the tails of the Martin/Incognito controversy, the NFL rules committee is considering the idea of a 15-yard penalty for saying "nigga" during a game. The proposal has, to no surprise, re-sparked conversations and debates about the use of the word ranging from its morphing etymology to who can say it and how.

I really hope the league sees all the reasons why this can't work, including...

The rule already exists

The NFL has rules addressing player conduct during game play including...

2014-02-26-NFLRule.JPG
Pretty straight forward to me.

If you ascribe to the idea that the word "nigga" is offensive what part of this rule doesn't apply? Creating a rule addressing one word or phrase is redundant at best. It also creates an unwanted hierarchy of offensiveness. It's not ok to call Michael Sam "nigga" but there is no "fag" or "homo" rule, so...

For those who argue that the NFL needs to conform to the laws that govern workplace culture 1) it's by no means a standard workplace 2) the rule does not address the NFL workplace as a whole but rather one relatively small, though important, portion of the overall NFL work environment. It is the equivalent of saying that there is no cursing in the office bathroom on Fridays from 1 to 4 p.m.

The rule enforced by (very) rich (very) white men

I am under no delusion that Roger Goodell or any NFL owner has ever owned any of my ancestors. That said the word gained its prevalence and pervasiveness during a time when some -- if not all -- of their ancestors owned the ancestors of the black players who make up 70 percent of the league. Should an organization with no black majority owners and a very small handful of black coaches and executives be legislators of black culture? And yes, regardless of where you stand on the "nigga" line it is in fact a matter of culture.

No NFL referee will (or wants to) throw that flag

Consider this part two of the previous paragraph. There are a relatively small number of black referees in the NFL and I have a hard time picturing Ed Hochuli calling a 15-yard "nigga" penalty on the offense. Add to this the number of judgement calls a football referee has to make during the course of a game as 22 incredibly large, incredibly fast men collide into each other and I would venture to guess that how players address each other is the least of their concern.

The rule will do nothing to curb the word's use

The John Wootens of the world would love nothing more than to see the word and all its forms erased from the lexicon. So much so that it has become the Lord Voldemort of language (he that shall not be named). To that cause, this rule is the most ineffectual option possible. This cause is a cultural one, not one of fair play or competition. This rule is the equivalent of cutting the top off of a dandelion and ignoring the roots that choke off the flowers around it.

There are so many other issues the league needs to address first

If the NFL is in need of addressing cultural taboo, there are a plethora of issues that are staring the league in the face that trump how black players acknowledge each other. The Washington Redskins sorely need a name change (and possibly the Chiefs as well). Again I call attention to the lack of minority ownership and executives. The specter of domestic violence (hello, Ray Rice). Marijuana use among players (hello, Bears/Ravens). Add to all of this, the entire world watching to see where the league's first openly gay player will get drafted and subsequently treated among his peers.

When cleaning a house it's best to throw out the garbage before you worry about sweeping up the dust.