The NFL may soon begin imposing an automatic 15-yard penalty for use of the N-word on the field and ejection from the game for subsequent infractions. The proposed penalty comes in response to concerns raised by the recent Miami Dolphins scandal and other disturbing incidents involving racially charged language directed at referees and other players. A very real concern is that one of the microphones on the field could inadvertently broadcast on-field slurs, and every fan watching, not just the target of the slur, could be subjected to and possibly injured by it, including child fans.
This scenario is not so far-fetched. Offensive tackle Trent Williams recently faced allegations that he called a referee the N-word during a heated on-field exchange, although he denies doing so. Even more egregious were the revelations of the Wells Report, detailing the cruel taunting and racial slurs that Miami Dolphins offensive tackle, Jonathan Martin, and other members of the Dolphins organization allegedly suffered at the hands of their teammates. Not surprisingly, Fritz Pollard Alliance spokesperson, John Wooten, wants the N-word to "be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room... [W]e want it eliminated completely."
The proposed rule has provoked a firestorm of controversy and deservedly so. It goes without saying that the rule's feasibility is anything but black and white. After all, even the Wells Report concedes that the NFL is not an "ordinary workplace." Critics of the penalty argue that the locker room is (or at least should be) sacrosanct, off-color banter and hijinks facilitate team bonding, and the NFL should encourage self-policing rather than imposing a rigid, unworkable civility code on players. Some fear that such a rule would fundamentally alter, but not necessarily improve, the nature of the game. Others argue that the penalty will be impossible and impractical to enforce, turning team members against one other instead of uniting them. Some African American players contend that they use the N-word among one another as a term of endearment, not an insult. Furthermore, it is somewhat unclear who would decide which slurs violate the rule and how that determination would be made.
Despite these very real concerns, which certainly warrant serious consideration, the rule, as proposed, only regulates conduct on the playing field. It does not govern how players speak to one another off the field or in social settings. Its adoption comports with longstanding legal recognition of third-party associative employment discrimination and same-sex harassment, which prohibit in-group discrimination. It is also consistent with recent legal precedent, concluding that an African American supervisor's use of the N-word toward an African American employee is sufficient, in some circumstances, to create a racially hostile work environment. As Professor Gregory Parks has observed, social science research indicates that African Americans' implicit race biases may lead to ill-intended, intraracial use of the N-word. The shameful historical legacy of the N-word further underscores the extent to which a reasonable person of any race would likely object to its use at an ordinary workplace, even where the speaker and target are both African American. In light of this, is barring players' use of the N-word on the field so exceptional, particularly when far less objectionable conduct, such as excessive celebration, is already penalized as unsportsmanlike? Perhaps penalizing use of the N-word and other derogatory slurs on the playing field could promote fairness, consistency, efficiency and hopefully, tolerance and sensitivity, engendering players and fans' respect for one another and the game.
Sadly, respect is something that many fans have lost for professional athletes, and perhaps with good reason. From dogfighting rings to doping scandals, every day professional athletes make the headlines for the wrong reasons. NBA player Matt Barnes recently took criticism when he referred to his teammates as n***** in a tweet, while Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper came under fire for using the N-word during a Kenny Chesney concert. So maybe it's time for the NFL and its players to finally make forward progress with fans, earning back some of the respect they have lost by enacting workable policies aimed to create a culture of respect and inclusion.