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 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 camera? Cooper 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 him. The legion of white celebrities, politicians and personalities who have been caught using the word in recent times have been publicly whiplashed into almost extinction for uttering 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 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, 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 "n-gger" will always reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. It can't be sanitized, cleansed, inverted or redeemed as a culturally liberating word. "N-gger" 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 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 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 "n-gger," 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 "n-gger" 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 "n-gger" 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 such 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 their 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