What ESPN And The NFL Don't Talk About When They Talk About "Nigger"S

Last week, we got word that the Fritz Pollard Alliance, chaired by ex-NFL player John Wooten, was pushing a rule change in the league that would penalize players for the use of the word "nigger" on the football field. The proposal involves a 15-yard penalty for a player's first offense, with an ejection if he says it again. This idea is bullshit, but it's gained so much traction that it's already been kicked to the NFL Competition Committee, comprising a racially diverse eight-man group of league coaches and general managers. They'll most likely present the rule change to the NFL's mostly old, mostly white owners next month.

The word "nigger" has gotten a lot of play in football over the last while, first with Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper proclaiming at a Kenny Chesney concert over the summer that he would "fight every nigger here," and then with the ongoing Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin affair, during which it emerged that Incognito called Martin many racial epithets, including "half-nigger piece of shit."

So between this proposed rule change, white guys calling black guys "niggers," and Black History Month, ESPN thought it would be a good idea to run an Outside the Lines special on Sunday titled "The N-Word." This was essentially an hourlong Around the Horn debate in drag, featuring ESPN personalities like Michael Wilbon, Jason Whitlock, Jemele Hill, and Tom Jackson, as well as others like Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Touré. Weirdly, Common turned up, too, presumably because he seems soulful, didn't really have shit else going on, and agreed to do an awkward little beat-poetry number to start the show. Dr. Richard Lapchick was also on hand, and while he's done a lot of great work over the years, it wasn't entirely clear why ESPN had invited him on to talk about the word "nigger," and given the amount of time he spent establishing his right-thinking bona fides, perhaps it wasn't clear to him, either.

In any case, the show sucked, for the same reason the proposed rule change sucks: Even after 400 years of slavery and de jure and de facto racism in this country, we still don't know how to talk about "nigger." We treat the word as a matter of etiquette, as a thing one shouldn't say in civilized society, and rarely reckon with what it actually means for someone to say it.

The problem of the word is that its etymology is entwined with an atrocity: the systematic purchase, relocation, enslavement, torture, rape, and murder of a race upon these shores. Not every black person has ancestors who were slaves, but nearly every black person in the Western Hemisphere can trace his or her roots to this bloody past, and no word or phrase has ever been devised that better or more efficiently encapsulates both that history and the way that history is woven into the present. It's a heavy word, having lost none of its violence or menace over the years. As Whitlock said during Outside the Lines, it was the last word many, many blacks heard before being shot or hanged or dragged or pummeled or hacked to death.

But "nigger" is also just a word. If it had never issued from a man's mouth, you can be damn sure the boats and the whips and the chains would've kept on coming. There would've been just as many shootings and hangings and draggings and pummelings and hackings in a "nigger"-less America, and we'd be having an earnest and altogether useless debate today about the propriety of using some other word, and we'd still be mistaking the symptoms for the disease.

That's part of the history, too, though—the non-reckoning. Reconstruction was less a nationwide effort to repair a broken country than a synchronized effort to dismiss the past, and among its legacies was a century and change of trying to sidestep the issue. We don't want to talk about any of that. It's uncomfortable; it's painful; it brings up incredibly complex questions about how we right wrongs that, however much they affect us today, were committed before our grandparents were born and that are in some ways baked into the system. Strange as it was, Common's introduction—written by ESPN's professional Southerner, Wright Thompson—got at the issue better than anything that transpired in the actual discussion. To reckon with "nigger," the piece understood, you have to reckon with history.

What is that history? It's slavery, and a campaign of apartheid and ethnic cleansing, and six million African-Americans fleeing the racially segregated South to Northern and Western cities in search of freedom and opportunity, and many of them ending up in isolated ghettos. This is a map from 1934, showing the concentration and location of Chicago's blacks in the middle of a period that saw their proportion swell from less than two percent of the city's population to around a third. It hasn't changed much nearly a century later, and the story isn't much different in our other major cities. This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates means when he invokes the "half-assed social contract" handed down to black people, the way we ignore that America turned its own citizens into a refugee population.

We don't like to talk about this, and so we talk around it instead. We get conversations about rap lyrics, referenda on saggy pants. We get rules and hourlong specials devoted to the forms of racism rather than any exploration of the thing itself. We don't talk about where it comes from, or how it expresses itself. We don't even talk about what it actually meant for Richie Incognito to call Jonathan Martin a "half-nigger piece of shit," or the power dynamic in play there—a dynamic that doesn't change if you take one freighted word out of Richie Incognito's vocabulary. The word "nigger" didn't give Incognito license to terrorize the guy he perceived as his lesser; it gave him a tool.

Another part of history, though, is change. In ESPN's strongest segment, a camera crew went to Teaneck High School in New Jersey to tape kids' reactions to the word. Many of them used it and heard it all the time. Most of the time, they were unfazed, because of its context. The sight of their young faces, mixed in among those of older dudes like Mean Joe Greene, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Jason Whitlock, did more than anything else to show how much this debate was about a generation gap. Older folks hear the word, and it immediately summons all sorts of specters—the violence Whitlock described, maybe, or the memory of indignities endured. Younger folks hear the word now and—depending on the context—shrug. (I'm 25. I say "nigga" all day, every day, and can't remember once directing the word at someone in unironic derision or hatred.)

The evolution of the word is pretty unfathomable and even tragic to many old people, but it's no less real for being resisted by the sort of people who furrow their brows on news specials. There's something healthy about it, in any case. It acknowledges the situational nature of language, that context matters.

In this respect, the NFL's proposed rule is hilariously wrongheaded. It plucks the word out of context, out of history, fixing a precise value on the use of a racial slur. Players are penalized 15 yards for saying "nigger"—not five or 10, or 20 yards, or a down, but 15 yards. Worse than holding, not as bad as intentional grounding. The rule is meant to stop a mountain troll like Incognito from looking across the line of scrimmage at a black player and calling him "nigger." But if such a rule were ever implemented and interpreted with the NFL's usual literal-mindedness, it would only end up policing and punishing more young black men who grew up with the word as a term of endearment than white men who would wield it with malice. Does anyone really think that a black player congratulating a teammate with "My nigga!" is using the same word that Richie Incognito was using?

Ultimately, the problem with the NFL's rule is the problem with Sunday's Around the Horn-as-Outside the Lines show. They both approach "nigger" as a question of manners, a do-and-don't, a first-order concern rather a second-order one that may (Incognito) or may not (Cooper) illuminate more serious blind spots within the league. The problem isn't the word "nigger." The problem is racism. Nothing is accomplished by conflating the two.


Image by Jim Cooke; source photo via AP.