Can we really blame the NFL for wanting to protect itself?
Historically, the use of the infamous “n-word” in sports, as in the rest of America, has been largely a black and white issue, but when it comes to pro football in 2014, the issue is all about green.
Yes, ladies and gents, like pretty much everything in sports and America, this is ultimately about money, potentially a lot of it that the NFL could forfeit if it’s sued for failing to address a potentially hostile work environment.
There’s a reason most of us don’t go into work blatantly using racial or gender-based slurs, and telling inappropriate jokes. It’s because it’s illegal. It can get you fired and it can get your employer sued. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act established, among other things, that, “un-welcome verbal or physical conduct based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, or retaliation,” constitutes harassment, which can, and has quite often in the subsequent 50 years, be punished monetarily.
I doubt Jonathan Martin realized the proverbial can of worms he was opening last October when he fled Miami Dolphins facilities after more than a year of the bullying tirade he endured from teammate Richie Incognito. Martin was subjected to an onslaught of racial slurs that would make Quentin Tarantino blush, but in the aftermath of attorney Ted Wells’ scathing report on what exactly went on in the Miami Dolphins locker room in 2013, the NFL isn’t hesitating to protect itself from potential liability from future Martins and Incognitos.
In February, it was announced that the league’s competition committee is debating making the use of racial slurs during games a 15-yard penalty, which has opened the league up to criticism. Most notably, ESPN Sports Commentator Michael Wilbon, co-host of “Pardon the Interruption,” has called foul on the move, saying it’s inappropriate given that those making the rules are almost universally white while the vast majority of those who will have to abide by them, are black.
“You’re gonna have a league with no black owners and a white commissioner — middle-aged and advanced-aged white men — say to black players, mostly — because that’s what we’re talking about — you can’t use the N-word on the field of play, or we’re gonna penalize you,” Wilbon said recently on his show. “I’ve got a massive problem with that. I know there are black men of the same age… who say no, you’ve got to take this word out of the workplace. I understand that. But I don’t want it enforced like this.”
There’s certainly room to criticize the league for its lack of diversity in ownership and management in general, and times like these are examples of why that diversity is important. But to expect this multi-billion dollar enterprise to leave itself unnecessarily vulnerable to lawsuits when the next Jonathan Martin decides to sue the pants off the league is ridiculous.
Like it or not, the NFL is an employer, no different legally than any other place of work when it comes to civil rights laws. It is subject to the same legal scrutiny as any other workplace, and the judicial system will likely not care if the league’s predominately black players mostly consider the n-word a, “term of endearment.” Can anyone picture NFL lawyers arguing this in a court of law? “Well your honor, see the plaintiff misunderstood when his teammates called him the n-word. They were saying, ‘you my nigg-A,’ not, ‘nigg-ER.’” They’d be laughed out of court, and rightfully so, which is exactly the point former All-Pro Wide Receiver Chris Carter tried to make in a recent interview on, “Mike and Mike in the Morning.”
“If you want to work in the NFL, the NFL should set the standard for what they want,” Carter said. “Forget what the hip-hop culture is doing. That’s their workplace… You’re in the NFL! You’ve got one of the greatest jobs in the world. We used to always say this. We would do anything to have that job. Well, now the anything is cleaning up as far as how you’re going to verbalize yourself.”
The recent controversy surrounding Seattle Seahawks Cornerback Richard Sherman, who was subjected to all kinds of racist taunts on the internet after his NFC Championship post-game bravado during an interview with CBS Sports Broadcaster Erin Andrews, shows that we still have a long way to go when it comes to race relations in America, and the sports world is no exception.
If black players want to demand a modicum of respect from fans and everyone around them, they should show the same class and professionalism amongst themselves. Most black people manage to go to places like work and church for hours without saying the n-word to their colleagues.
Why do we expect less of black athletes?