We all had it, surely. We had a high school class that dealt with social issues, and at one point we were assigned to pick an “ism” and know everything about its history, and its badness or goodness. Or at least I was, and at the time 16-year-old Sean Tomlinson picked racism. Presumably because hey, why not start small.
For pretty obvious reasons, I’ll never forget one of the primary sources I read as part of that project…
That word. I can’t even type it, even though it makes no reference to me. Although I understand it’s deep, hateful meaning, I can never truly grasp it. That’s because as someone who isn’t of African-American descent and I’m instead just your standard, boring, and normal(-ish) white person, it’s far removed from my personal experience and worldview. Without that experience I can certainly acknowledge that a word is hate charged, but gaining a genuine understanding of an insult requires being exposed to its piercing jabs.
But still, that word. Even looking at it now on this screen makes me itchy. For a word to have that much power — and the wrong kind of power — is jarring. That’s why any legislation limiting or banning its use in a forum that’s even kind of, sort of public will gain immediate support, which is largely what John Wooten has discovered.
Wooten is the chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group officially formed in 2003 which played a critical role in the development of the Rooney Rule and monitors diversity in the league while dedicating most of its energy towards promoting and protecting the rights of minority coaches (or potential minority coaches). Last week Wooten said he expects that when the league’s competition committee meets a rule will be passed which will result in a 15-yard penalty for any player who uses the word, and an ejection when it’s used twice. That word.
In truth, the end result will likely be a more strict enforcement of rules already in place, though there’s great difficulty in exactly that: enforcement. In a loud stadium with 22 voices voices on the field at one time and officials already tasked with hovering over an inherently chaotic game, deciphering what exactly was said and who said it will become rather challenging fast. Then there’s also the slope and precedent the league is inviting as it gets into the business of policing language. Though it’s often (and many would argue, wrongly) used as a term of endearment in the right context, the word under consideration is undoubtedly awful, especially when said by the wrong person to the wrong person.
But the same can be said for a list of other troubling words, including one the league has fully and repeatedly embraced: Redskins.
Simon Moya-Smith, a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation and a contributor to CNN.com, asked a few simple yet blatantly obvious questions. Or at least they should be.
Why is it bad to demean a player of African descent, but the pejorative “Redskins” is still just fine for use as the name of the Washington football team? Makes no sense.
As a Native American who participates in the Native American community and doesn’t just claim to be Native American because I have a picture somewhere of a great-grandma who had high cheekbones, I wonder: Hey NFL, why aren’t you just as pissed about the R-word?
The group offended by the word starting with the letter “N” may be larger than the other which dislikes the one beginning with “R”, but in the eyes of a multi-billion football machine which aims to appeal to every corner of America, that should matter little. Though there’s a legitimately meandering history to the word Wooten seeks to eradicate and as Clay Matthews said, players do indeed self-identify with the term, it’s offensive and should not be in common use in any setting.
Yet although the approval rating is rapidly dropping, as of just over a month ago the name of the Washington football team was supported by 71 percent of respondents in a Public Policy poll. The appetite for change is increasing, as that approval fell by eight points over just a period of eight months, after falling only 10 points over 20 years. But with Wooten’s confidence that a language change of another kind will be immediate and supported, the hypocrisy rises. The old guard cares about one group and one word, while completely disregarding another.
Or maybe that’s unfair. Maybe this is simple progress we’re seeing, and a language evolution which takes time. If so, three cheers to that, but ultimately Wooten’s proposal is meaningless and misdirected.
As offensive and horrible and downright disgusting as the word is, it’s still a word. We assign words their power, and then allow them to sustain it. What’s much more important is the behavior and attitude behind a word which isn’t contained by six letters.
Wooten told ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the Morning that his initiative is highly supported by league officials, and a feeling of total shock will come with anything short of unanimous backing from the competition committee. When that happens, the rule will be a gesture, and a proud nod towards class elevation. But it’ll be a symbolic gesture nonetheless.
It won’t fix any future Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito clashes, or a culture of bullying rooted far deeper than a word. And it won’t fix moments of anger that escalate into unfortunate utterances during on-field arguments, like the one between Trent Williams and referee Roy Ellison that was directly cited by Wooten. The word may change but the emotion remains the same, and the rule especially won’t erase blatant racists like Riley Cooper.
As Deadspin’s Greg Howard wrote, words are interchangeable, and the emotional drive behind them matters far more.
But “nigger” is also just a word. If it had never issued from a man’s mouth, you can be damn sure the boats and the whips and the chains would’ve kept on coming. There would’ve been just as many shootings and hangings and draggings and pummelings and hackings in a “nigger”-less America, and we’d be having an earnest and altogether useless debate today about the propriety of using some other word, and we’d still be mistaking the symptoms for the disease.
Racism from the likes of Cooper and demeaning behavior from the Incognitos doesn’t fade away with a word. The word leaves and the attitude lives on. All that really changes is on-field decorum, and the shine of the NFL’s product.
The surface gets scratched, and the Redskins are still playing underneath.