Yellow flag now a black-white issue

by | Mar 2, 2014 | Comment, Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

It’s not my word.

I don’t like it. I don’t use it.

To me, the N-word is a hateful slur based on a person’s skin color. Yet because my skin is also a certain color, I am told I cannot criticize its usage.

It’s not my word.

But sooner or later, everyone, black and white, will stop saying it in public. This is inevitable. It’s called evolving. One day, we will look back on the current debate and shake our heads.

Meanwhile, that debate now centers on whether the NFL should start penalizing teams 15 yards for a player’s use of the N-word on the field.

Is this absolutely essential? No. Will it be easily – or even fairly – enforced? Hardly. Is there any way the NFL should do this without cracking down on all ethnic and homophobic slurs – and losing the name “Redskins” in Washington? No way.

But while those are fair objections, surprisingly, they have not been the loudest. The loudest has been from a contingent that believes using the N-word is a right that shouldn’t be touched.

If I said that 50 years ago, you’d assume I was talking about white people.

I’m not.

Image everything for the NFL

Instead, I’m referring to a very vocal minority – at least I believe it’s a minority – of athletes, entertainers, commentators and advocates who are mostly African American, and who claim the NFL’s possible initiative is a move that, as one such critic for wrote, “emboldens whites who assert their privilege over use of the N-word.”

Huh? Look. I don’t shake the rafters of this idea and find sociological ghosts of white supremacy. I see a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry worried about its image.

The NFL has grown into a profitable behemoth by controlling every element of how it is portrayed, down to fining players for wearing the wrong socks.

It saw the negative attention the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin harassment case caused. It saw the huge spotlight cast by Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay. It thinks ahead, years, even decades. It knows the world is becoming less and less tolerant of any display of intolerance.

“We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room,” John Wooten told Wooten, an African American, is a former NFL lineman who now heads the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, which monitors diversity in the NFL. He is pushing the N-word ban.

Do I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth? Yes. But does the NFL have the right to do it? Absolutely. Telling players they can’t use racial slurs on the field – which is, after all, the workplace – is not much different than IBM outlawing outbursts in the research department or Macy’s forbidding them on the main floor.

Only in those cases, you wouldn’t get penalized 15 yards; you’d get fired.

So critics who say the NFL has no right are wrong. The field is a stage; NFL owners are the directors. If you feel compelled to scream the N-word, you can do it, without a paycheck, in the parking lot.

A trickier debate is why black players want to cling to the word in the first place.

A unique disagreement

Admittedly, I am not black, and cannot possibly feel the same feelings as any African American objecting to this idea. But that doesn’t make me – or other whites, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, etc. – stupid or insensitive. We recognize history. We understand how for years the N-word was a daily verbal stripping of a person’s dignity, and how some now proudly use the word themselves as a brick through the window of such an awful legacy.

But Japanese Americans were interned and dehumanized less than 70 years ago in this country; they don’t embrace the J-word. Jews were systematically executed, gassed and buried in mass graves – all less than 70 years ago – and they don’t defiantly cling to the K-word. Nor do Chinese Americans boast the C-word, Italians the W-word, Germans the K-word, etc. And there are other African-American slurs that few blacks would tolerate, even from one another.

The N-word fight is unique. And while nobody should dictate private conversations, if the NFL is going to suspend a white player for using the N-word at an off-season concert or suspend an African-American referee for allegedly saying it to an African-American player, then why the shock at a yellow flag? It’s 15 yards, not a lifetime ban. The NFL would equate the behavior with excessive celebrating.

Eventually, I believe, people will get tired of defending this hateful slur. In years to come, it may even seem silly. But this is how things change, in fits and starts, coughs and sputters, some easy, some hard.

It is not my word. In time, it won’t be anyone else’s.

The day can’t come quickly enough.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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