Commentary

N-word has no place in NFL, society

Anything to get rid of hateful slur, including proposed penalty, is a good thing

Updated: February 25, 2014, 5:32 PM ET
By Dan Graziano | ESPN.com

The civility revolution must not fail, and institutions like the NFL must not be exempt.

A proposed new rule that would establish a yardage penalty for on-field use of the N-word is a great step toward the culture change that should be force-fed to the NFL and its players if they won't take the necessary steps on their own. The word simply has no acceptable place in 2014 discourse. It benefits no one and carries extensively hurtful potential. It has to go. So if there are players out there who still insist they have cultural justification for using it, or that they shouldn't be penalized because they weren't using it as an insult, fine. Good luck selling that to your coach after you just cost your team 15 yards.

As much as some of its players and coaches might like it to be, the NFL is not a closed society. It is a multibillion-dollar industry that does its business in public and draws tremendous financial benefit from that fact. The people who run and market the league wisely embrace the public aspect, continually inviting their customers to see and hear more. Sideline boom microphones pick up more and more every year. Someone is always miked up on the field. The league puts cameras in the locker rooms so fans can see and hear pregame and postgame chatter. This is a trend that's only going one way, and with it must come internal change.

The New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal, the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal and the Michael Sam story have ignited debate about the kinds of behaviors that are and aren't acceptable behind the closed doors of an NFL locker room. But the underlying lesson in all of those stories is of behavior that can no longer be deemed acceptable. And the reason is that those doors aren't closed quite as tightly as they used to be.

This is a good thing. Those who would argue that NFL players have to be allowed to act in boorish ways toward each other in order to succeed are wrong. Those who are determined to cling to it are uncreative. If you want to complain that there's a word you can't say in the locker room anymore because one of your teammates is openly gay, my response is, "Good. You shouldn't have been saying it, anyway." You want to tell me that depriving you of the ability to use that word makes it tougher for you to get ready to play on Sunday? Well, now who's being ridiculous?

The proposed new "N-word rule" takes the civility effort out onto the field, where we have been told for years that players need to stir themselves into an uncontrollable frenzy in order to play football at the NFL level. More hype and hogwash. If you can train yourself to control your frenzy enough that you don't jump offside, you can certainly train yourself not to use a word. If the NFL's decision makers want to legislate the language its players use when they're out in the open with millions watching and listening, that's not only the their right, it's its duty. You could argue that insisting the Washington Redskins change their name would be an effort to apply a similar standard to owners, and you'd be right, but that doesn't mean penalizing players for using racial slurs on the field isn't a worthwhile step to take.

"If I'm sitting at a table with Richie Incognito, and he speaks to Jonathan Martin and uses the N-word, I'm not stepping in to save Jonathan Martin or to defend him," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said on ESPN's "Outside the Lines." "I'm stepping in because I'm offended that you even fixed your mouth to say it."

Really, why is anyone, in 2014, even fixing his mouth to say that word? What actual good has the use of that word ever done for anyone? Why is it allowed to live?

This is a change that can do only good and no harm. This is an effort to make the world a better place, to encourage people to treat other people better. Even if the word isn't being used as invective on the field, reducing the number of times it's said out loud is a worthwhile part of the effort to re-establish civility among those of us who inhabit this planet together.

This is an overdue and undervalued effort, but it's one that's starting to be made. Exempting the NFL from this effort would be foolhardy. If anything, an entity that gets as much attention as the NFL gets should be on the forefront.

Dan Graziano

ESPN New York Giants reporter

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