Well, if we wanted a National Conversation, we sure do have one now! Last night, Charles Barkley said his piece about the use of "nigga." This was brought on most directly by Matt Barnes's tweets, in which he expressed his frustration with standing up for his "niggas" only to be fined for it by the league. But the subject has been percolating since the start of the Incognito affair, which, for all the early talk of bullying, has begun to coalesce around the basic question of who gets to say "nigga" in what context, and above all who gets to answer that question.

Here's Barkley:

I use the n-word. I'm going to continue to use the n-word with my black friends, with my white friends. They are my friends. ... But this debate goes back to the Paula Deen thing, where they're like, well, black people use it among themselves; it's in rap records. Listen, what I do with my black friends is not up to white America to dictate what's appropriate and inappropriate.

(Maybe Dan Majerle's an honorary black guy!)

Barkley's going to the same well as Michael Wilbon, who on PTI said he uses "nigga" among black friends. He didn't have any problems with Barnes's language.

He does, however, take issue with the white people in charge essentially deciding the issue for black people, going so far as to fine a guy for tweeting a word he is otherwise allowed to use.

I have a problem with—and excuse me here—white people framing the discussion for the use of the n-word. ... David Stern, Roger Goodell ... they need to call in some people who look a little different from them in to make that call, to figure out how we're going to address this. But unilaterally, sitting on high, telling black folks how to speak, that doesn't go.

And the other day we got the above from Cris Collinsworth on Inside the NFL. He's talking directly about the Incognito stuff. He first advises white guys on how to use the word:

For anybody to use that word, for me, is just simply wrong. Now I understand that I'm asking a lot. ... But there now has to be a zero tolerance for using the n-word... zero tolerance. You can't do it. No matter what you hear—don't even hum along to the radio, to the songs that are using that word, because it is so offensive.

So white players should never use it, even if given permission by someone like, I don't know, Charles Barkley. Fair enough. From there, he moves on to the black guys in the locker room:

Unfortunately, I can't just address the white players. I also have to address the African-American players in the National Football League. Because when there is a small group of players that goes to a side, and they have a discussion, and the n-word is being thrown around—now you're putting up walls, you're putting up barriers.

That "barriers" point sounds a lot like the dumb old complaint about Hispanic ballplayers talking Spanish with each other—how it carves up the locker room, etc., as though a locker room weren't already carved up in a thousand ways, by race, by age, by shared experience, and on and on. But give Collinsworth some credit. At least he's cognizant that the word is context dependent. A white guy saying "nigga," even an authorized white guy, is different from a black guy saying "nigga."

That should go without saying, and I thought it did, but then I came across this piece by Ramona Shelburne on ESPN.com. It is a tour de force of wrongheadedness. It conflates Barnes's use of "niggas" in his tweet to the "niggers" and swastikas of the skinheads who hated him in high school. And it has to be the first time in recorded history that a white person, upon hearing a black guy call his friend a "nigga," essentially said to the speaker, "How dare you?" It's unlikely that Shelburne is the only white person to have ever felt this way, but it's a thought that most would be wary of articulating publicly. But this is what happens when the National Conversation starts: Even the stupidest ideas start to become fit for discussion.

So here we are, a bunch of blacks and whites arguing about race with no action either way. All that pent up tension with no release. It's the 1990s all over again. Maybe Jonathan Martin should throw a trashcan through David Stern's office window so we can all just go get a slice of pizza.