15 Yard Penalty For a 200 Year Old Problem

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“Sport has the power to change the world” – Nelson Mandela.  As a universal language, I can understand using sports as a strategic medium to implement social change by designing socially responsible business solutions. But banning the N-word on the playing field is not one of those solutions and I believe is a misuse of corporate social responsibility. The only thing this new rule will do is penalize a team 15 yards during a game for something that has been woven into African American culture for over 200 years. I applaud the NFL for taking a stand and even tackling such an issue. But the Fritz Pollard Alliance that monitors diversity within the league, is approaching this deeply rooted subject incorrectly. If the NFL wants to start enacting a change of culture and eliminate use of the N-word period, it should start in the homes and on the streets where young men begin to play the sport – not after the fact on the field when the rituals and behavioral patterns are already embedded in the minds of adult men.

These are lyrics taken from “Anti-Nigger Machine,” a track released in 1990 by hip-hop group Public Enemy:

Once they never gave a fuck about what I said/

Now they listen and they want my head/

I ain’t with it/

This is what I mean, an anti-nigger machine/

Adoption of the N-word by the Black community is often considered a way to feel a sense of ownership, taking the power back by dropping the er and replacing it with an a. For the past 40 years while hip-hop and rap music has grown to become mainstream, use of the N-word has instilled an unofficial privilege or social right for Black people (and granted confidantes) to say it. People become products of their social environment. And even Public Enemy recognized that vilifying someone and attempting to control their identity after centuries of stigmatizing them – is likes the pot calling the kettle black…no pun intended.

In November of 2013, Los Angeles Clippers guard  Matt Barnes was fined $25,000 for tweeting the n-word after being ejected from a game. A punishment in that regard is acceptable in my opinion because of the public forum in which he vented his frustrations. But what I find to be even more important are the remarks made after this incident by Charles Barkley – “White America doesn’t get to dictate how me and Shaq talk to each other. And they’ve been trying to infiltrate themselves saying ‘Well you guys use it, it’s in rap music’ — no, no, no, that’s not the same.” The NFL proposing to add this rule is a direct example of Barkley’s reference, wherein non-African Americans in positions of power are attempting to control the communication between and culture of African Americans.

An attempt to eliminate the widespread use of the N-word is going to require more than a 15-yard penalty. It begins to open up doors where other derogatory terms (e.g. homophobic slurs) are now considered penalizable offenses. But in regards to the N-word, a term used to describe majority of the athletes in this revenue-generating sport, attempting to flag slurs becomes a bit more convoluted. This is a cultural issue centered within Black intergroup relations. For the NFL to so laxly suggest that a yellow flag will counter over two centuries worth of stigmas and discrimination is borderline insulting. This type of change must be approached and dealt with internally by the Black community in order to cohesively discuss what  ramifications the N-word has on their own identities.


  1. Charon Johnson · · Reply

    Kudos……I hadn’t really taken the time to process this potential rule change, but after reading your piece it’s got me thinking. I think the problem with the word now is everyone wants to say it because it sounds cool and their favorite rapper uses it. So since it isn’t politically correct for “others” to use the word, they want to take our power away from us yet again and deem the word too controversial in the sports world. I believe that the powers that be are trying to take away all of our cultural traditions they themselves aren’t quite “comfortable” with and eliminate them from sports. From dress codes, to having dreads, tattoos…..the list goes on and on. The “whitewash” of African American culture in sports is upon us, hopefully the players wake up and realize that they have a say in all of this. With all that being said, nice article.

    1. Thank you for your comment!
      You bring up fantastic points. I hadn’t thought of the motivational aspect. But what you said about the powers that be wanting to eliminate the things within Black culture that they can’t participate in – dress codes, language, tattoos – that makes a lot of sense.
      And as you say, once Black athletes realize that they are the key holders, maybe then a true dialogue can take place.

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