At the NFL owners’ meetings later this month, the league’s competition committee is expected to endorse a rule banning the use of “n—-” on the field of play, penalizing teams whose players employ it with a 15-yard penalty and ejecting players who use it twice in a single game. If the competition committee signs off on the rule, it will be put to a vote, whereupon the overwhelmingly white owners of the NFL — the only exceptions being the Jaguars’ Shahid Khan and the Packers, who are publicly owned — will decide whether to try to regulate a word that doesn’t belong to them.
This news has predictably resulted in a fraught discussion about “n—-” itself and if black players should be discouraged from using the word. Richard Sherman recently called the proposal “atrocious” and “almost racist.” Ryan Clark claimed that it’s going to be near-impossible to enforce the rule because “n—-” is heard so often on the field. Jason McCourty says many black players use the word interchangeably with sentence-enders like “man” and “bro.” D’Qwell Jackson doesn’t use the term, but, like Clark, he knows that getting rid of it is easier said than done.
You’ll notice the four players cited above are African-American. When Outside the Lines covered the issue in late February, Bob Ley talked to black athletes and sportswriters. (And Common because he’s a rapper who doesn’t scare white people.) White voices have no legitimate place in the argument about the word’s usage. Expressing one’s opinion about the way black people talk to each other is not the same as shouting down bigots or even railing against Washington’s football team for using a slur in its name. Black individuals can and do sort out for themselves whether using the word is OK. They handle arguments about it within their own community, with no need for input from outsiders. Sometimes being a good ally to a marginalized group is knowing when to shut up, and if non-black folks want to be helpful in this case, the best we can do is recuse ourselves from the conversation.
Thankfully, most of the words written and spoken recently on the larger topic of “n—-” and its place in black people’s vocabularies have been by African-Americans, and I haven’t encountered any facile misreadings of the NFL’s rule, like this is primarily about protecting black players from white guys using the slur. (I’m pretty sure referees already feel well within their jurisdiction to throw an unsportsmanlike conduct flag if they hear one player racially defaming another.) So the problem, really, is just the rule itself, which is tone deaf and reads like a bunch of white guys being displeased that their mostly black players are using a word they deem more profane than workaday athlete foulmouthery.
This isn’t quite the reality. John Wooten of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which monitors diversity in the NFL, has been pushing the league to take steps to eradicate the word for a while now. The NFL is presumably acting on the recommendation of someone whose job it is to make sure the league has policies that don’t disenfranchise minorities. There is also the fact that while most of the NFL’s owners are white, the nine-man competition committee that has to figure out whether to propose the rule has Marvin Lewis, Ozzie Newsome, Rick Smith and Mike Tomlin on it.
But none of those mitigating factors make the rule correct. The NFL shouldn’t pass it because while the owners have legislative authority, they lack the moral authority to police this sort of issue, not unlike a panel of men in the House of Representatives trying to sort out reproductive rights without consulting women. It’s abhorrent and gross. The NFL is a hubristic organization that asserts dominion over the lives of its athletes in ways that often seem dehumanizing and cruel, but trying to control how black players talk to one another marks a new level of insensitivity and arrogance, one which the majority of its workforce is unlikely to tolerate.