The N-word controversy: why the confusion?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The contradiction that is 'professional sports' may muddle our thinking about how we see the 'game'.

The NFL's Competition Committee is deliberating over whether to ban the use of the infamous 'N-word'. The issue has come to a head in the wake of the Incognito/Martin affair, but it is clearly a topic that has been festering for some time. What's fascinating to me are the arguments coming forward pro and con and the advocates for each. Can and should language be legislated, and why this word and not others? Is it offensive to allow its use? Is it racist to ban its use? Who can say it? How can it be interpreted in its various iterations? The national media is getting involved from Peter King at SI.com to sites that we don't usually associate with sports reporting like The Atlantic. Pro Bowlers (Richard Sherman) are squaring off against HOFers (Harry Carson), and any number of smart observers are wondering why an institution that can be severely challenged getting illegal contact right would add this hand grenade on to the plate of its game officials.

Someone once said that 'professional sports' is a contradiction, an oxymoron. A lot of truth there. The culture, values and priorities of sport are very different from that of business. Fans, media and even the players experience confusion in trying to navigate this landscape. Context is important. While there are a variety of contextual concerns in play here, generational being one of the most obvious, my purpose  is to highlight how the ongoing conundrum of the game of football vs. the business of football comes into play in this specific instance, and how it serves to frame this and other issues effecting the NFL.

The Peter King piece is titled Legislating Language. Consider this excerpt,

"It's an atrocious idea," said Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. "It's almost racist, to me. It's weird they're targeting one specific word. Why wouldn't all curse words be banned then?"

"It's a common word in so many players' everyday lives," said Tennessee cornerback Jason McCourty. "Among African-American players and people it's used among friends all the time. It seems like a bit much for the NFL to try  to get rid of it. It's a pretty common word in the locker room like 'man', 'bro', 'nigga'. But once a white person says it it's a derogatory term"

Okay. A couple of small changes. Instead of "locker room", say "work place". Instead of "player", say "employee" or "contractor". Changes the nature of the conversation, doesn't it. One might think of a locker room as a clubhouse where anything goes among friends. But at the professional level the locker room is also very much the work place. Does language get legislated in the work place? At mine it does (a government run facility). Hell, it gets regulated on this site. Not that it needs to be in most places. Its generally understood that the boundaries are different in a work environment than it is in more informal settings. Sherman certainly understands contextual differences. In his, now famous, rant at the end of the NFCCG his rhetoric may have been fiery, but it in no way violated the standard for comportment when speaking on live, nationally broadcast television. People who don't get it in this regard are unlikely to remain employed very long. Employers that don't get it may have to develop a liking for litigation.

The lines get blurred. If it is purely a game you may or may not agree with the point of view of Sherman and McCourty but the argument is understandable. Viewed in business, work place terms the bottom begins to fall out. The hybrid nature of the beast is such that the league has to resort to contemplating a formal ban on something that would probably otherwise be self governing as a matter of common sense, like knowing that kicking a fellow competitor in the groin is beyond the pale. Why target just one word? Because the target is not curse words generally but slurs, what might at one time be called 'fighting words', and most of the other terms that would likely apply (The 'B' or 'C' words for women, the 'F' word for gays, the 'K' word for Jews) aren't issues that are relevant on a modern professional gridiron. At least not yet.

A ban would feel more like a ploy to achieve legal cover rather than a spur to ethical behavior. Just like the uneven response of the league to addressing the issue of player safety by protecting wide receivers and quarterbacks at the expense of defensive backs and, coincidentally I'm sure, helping to ramp up crowd pleasing offensive production while doing basically nothing for the defensive side of the ball, offensive linemen and running backs (unless your helmet flies off). However, these two examples are hardly the sole instances of what might be considered confused or questionable thinking in regard to the professional game.

Put on your general manager's hat for a moment and consider the case of Plaxico Burress. Much has been made of the need for a quality big receiver, and that perhaps that should be the Steelers' highest priority in the upcoming draft. Of course, we already have a quality big receiver on the roster; Burress. Now say it.

He's 36.

Careful now. You're general manager, and you do know that age discrimination is illegal do you not? Saying that he's 36 and has lost a few steps is better, but there is still the question of whether he's lost enough steps to not be competitive. Age will eventually bring low every elite athlete, but that time will vary based upon personal genetics, self care, the position played and luck. To simply say that someone is washed up based purely on the odometer reading is discriminatory and ignorant. One of the better more recent examples would be Troy Polamalu who, though losing a step or two is still head and shoulders above other players at his position in their prime.

From all the accounts I'm aware of Burress was having a very good camp up to point of being injured. I also remember people falling all over themselves declaring that he was through, presumably because he's 36, practically before he was carted off the field. Granted, most of the time you're likely to be right, with emphasis on the word "most". London Fletcher, just to think of one name is the same age, plays a more demanding position, and is still thought to have a little left in the tank.  Even if you get a rookie who goes on to become one the great ones, few of the best Steelers receivers (Swann, Stallworth, Holmes, Brown) were big impact starters in their first year. So what do you lose if you see if you can wring one more quality year from Burress? You can release him at any time.

The point I'm trying to make is I'm not holding the various actors in this particular drama to account for slightly muddled thinking. That disease is epidemic among fans, media, players and management. If you want to address this issue in a less confused manner, and avoid some of the mistakes and frustrations that have been ongoing with player safety then all of us might want to consider the following.

The NFL is a business staffed by professional employees. Their business happens to be a 'game', but the negotiation of that being reconciled is ongoing. If you contend that this is merely a game where the players just happen to be financially compensated, then the clubhouse, locker room model is defensible. But if these are professionals operating in a work place (the locker room and the field) then some additional layers of standards may apply, the sensibilities of fellow employees and customers that don't share the informal norms of one's 'friends'; something that anyone who has had and held a job or stepped into a church or temple readily understands. The inability to meet those standards are just as determinant of your suitability to be in that profession as physical talent.

That being said, ethical issues are best dealt with through self regulation rather than the imposition of rules or a ban. Primarily because its already acknowledged that such a thing would probably be unenforceable in any meaningful way, and would create something that the league doesn't need. One more reason for everyone to be pissed off at the officials. The problem is that on multiple fronts the league is sending important signals that undermine what they say they seek to achieve.

Jerome Bettis was right I think when he stated that the presence of high quality veteran leadership would have made a difference in what went down in the Incognito affair. In both the game and business of football veterans are crucial to conveying and policing a number of different standards involving everything from performance to comportment. Yet the current business operating model, a model that many of us fans endorse without comment or complaint, is hostile to veterans in the extreme. The Steelers may lose two team captains (Clark and Keisel) along with two other significant leaders (Foote and Taylor) from their defense because the rules are such that maximizing profitability trumps most everything else. The fact that Fernando Velasco began last season sitting in a church pew should be cause for concern on some level. The preference is for players that are young, cheap and compliant. You get what you pay for. We can hope for the best on the level of performance, but the loss in the locker room might be incalculable.

And of course, sooner or later someone might bring up the inconvenient fact that while the league is busying itself policing racial slurs on the field, one of its team names is believed by many to be a racial slur. It doesn't help that said team was  proud of its title as the 'team of Dixie', and was the last to hire black players (and that with a proverbial gun to its head). Maintaining the name is defended upon the basis of tradition.  Mr. Snyder and Mr. Goodell, meet Mr. Sherman and Mr. McCourty.

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