By Ernie Palladino
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No one will ever consider the NFL as the vanguard of sociological progress. But the league’s expected plan to emphasize an existing rule about foul and offensive language on the field, in this case flagging the N-word for 15 yards, is at least a step in the right direction.
This space is not naive enough to believe the erasure of the N-word from the game-day lexicon will rocket human relations forward a century or two. But it couldn’t hurt. Besides, eliminating it would be a start to excising other words of a more sexual nature given the current and near-future climate. Remember, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who recently announced he is gay, could be a mid-round draft pick. One can only imagine the imagery an offensive lineman might offer the young pass rusher in the heat of battle.
For those concerned about the league legislating away the competitive nature of its players, think about this. They have plenty of other words in their arsenal. Ever hear what’s said across the line of scrimmage? Ever hear what goes on under the pile during a fumble recovery?
It ain’t Olympic curling, that’s for sure. Players’ ancestries come into vulgar question, old blasphemies and new ones made up on the spot are thrown around. If the elimination of conversation is the issue here, fear not. There are a lot of creative minds on that field, all with the ability to turn four well-placed letters into a noun, verb, adjective, and adverb, all with appropriate case and mood.
Take out the N-word? No problem. Plenty of other words left, all just as ugly but most minus the social stigma.
This would not be the first time the league banned personal expression. It turned the once-popular throat-slash gesture into a 15-yard penalty and fine-able offense as far back as 1999. Recognizing the gang origins of crossing both hands under one’s chin in an “X” and separating them in a violent gesture, as if holding a knife, the league got it out of there fast.
Players do lose their heads and do it, of course. One of the league’s major sources of outside income, Lions perpetually-fined defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, took a $7,875 hit in the wallet for his throat-slash against Tampa Bay in November. Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, another budding genius, took a similar fine in September after scoring a touchdown against the Rams.
Unseemly group celebrations after touchdowns and other events draw penalties, too. And yet, the players of the NFL still manage to express their joys in more individual, more acceptable fashions.
Again, the NFL will not be spearheading any lasting sociological changes if and when the owners call for the penalty’s emphasis at their March meeting. They still have plenty of work to do. As one Twitter user tweeted, it still has a team called “Redskins” in Washington. View it as harmless tradition or just another term for a Native American; fact is, enough of those Native Americans and their supporters are ticked off about its enduring characterization that they’ve organized a movement to get the name changed.
That will probably never happen. Too hard. Too much of a football legacy that goes along with the name.
But taking the N-word out of the game? Easily done. Players can’t curse out officials with impunity. They have to watch their language while arguing a call. This rule simply makes them further tailor their language — toward opponents as well as their own teammates.
“I think they’re going to do what needs to be done here,” said Giants Hall-of-Fame linebacker Harry Carson, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. “There is too much disrespect in the game.”
Emphasizing respect never hurt the quality of any sport.
The players will be fine. Their dictionaries have plenty of other words to choose from.
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