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Keith Strudler: Language, Culture And The NFL

WAMC sports commentator Keith Strudler discusses the National Football League's newest penalty. 

The most talked about word in professional football is, ironically, a word we can’t say. It’s the incendiary “n” word, one of the few words universally known by a single letter. And, if NFL management has their way, it will soon be a word NFL players can’t say either, not without suffering a 15-yard penalty.

That’s the likely outcome of the league’s spring meetings, where they’ll create a new violation – illegal use of the N word on the field of play. This won’t inherently carry over to the locker room, where this kind of language is as common as screaming at a playground.  But at the very least, you won’t, or shouldn’t hear the incendiary language in the most visible part of the NFL workplace.

Now how that’s legislated is a whole other banana. It’s hard to know who’s holding in pro football, much less who’s mouthing off. It’s entirely possible the vast majority of offenses will go unnoticed. And to be honest, I’m really curious how the refs announce the penalty, without making it worse than it already is.

The racial politics of this ordeal couldn’t be more confusing or conflicted. For starters, it’s been pointed out repeatedly that the lion’s share of this now illegal rhetoric comes from African-American football players, who coincidentally constitute some 70% of the league. And it becomes somewhat awkward, if not offensive when largely white management tells its minority workplace what is and isn’t racist. Some have made the very obvious point that this word, perhaps the most heated in the English language, has very different context when said by white athletes than by their black teammates. You can call it a dual standard, political correctness, or whatever you want, but it is what it is.

There’s also the issue of hypocrisy, or at least a lack of inclusiveness on this policy. While the “n” word might be a penalty, the “h” or “f” word isn’t, nor the “k” word. If the league were consistent, you could probably lose the better part of the field on one carefully constructed, highly offensive sentence. And let’s not forget that the league promotes a team named the Redskins, which isn’t only not against the rule, it’s a billion dollar franchise. As logical as this rule sounds, and for the record I do think it’s wise to ban this kind of language, don’t think it’s rooted in some innate goodness from the commissioner’s office.

Clearly, this yellow flag comes directly in response to the Richie Incognito situation, where the “n” word was only one of many rhetorical blows. But those texts, with a white player repeated berating his black teammate with a word once associated with racial hatred, put the NFL in what can only be called a pickle.

There’s a few important thought here. First, it’s impossible to get around the racial politics of the “n” word, particularly in the racially integrated yet divided world of professional football. In some ways, pro sports have always been America’s experiment in integration.  Think of this word a part of that evolving puzzle.

Second, if the NFL wanted to draw more attention to highly offensive language and draw a bigger racial divide amongst its employees and fans, then mission accomplished. There are quiet ways to do things, then there’s the NFL way. This is an organization that would build a toy car with a jack hammer. So even good intentions become sloppy justice, which this most certainly will be.

And maybe that’s the real problem here. It’s hard for me to entertain the idea that the “n” word should remain part of either the English vernacular or the NFL workplace. And yes, I do understand the way to disempower language is by changing its context and ownership. I get that. But that process can’t play out on national television in front of kids that don’t understand that process. This history lesson should come from parents and teachers, not your favorite outside linebacker.

But what NFL could of, or should have done make this change through education and environment, not punishment. Yellow flags and fines don’t make a more educated populace. Education does. And we’ll get none of that with yet another top down mandate by a league that’s perfected the art. Where just when the racial divide seems smaller than ever, with another African American quarterback winning the Super Bowl, the league shows it would rather just turn the corner instead of actually bridging the gap.

That’s not something the league will talk about much. Because like the “n” word itself, there’s many things in the NFL, you’re just not allowed to say.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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