The NFL. Rough. Tough. Hard-hitting and full of testosterone. It’s a manly-man’s game where crying is only sometimes allowed –when you win. The nature of the game itself serves a perception about its players. The locker room, an extension of the gridiron is just as tough. There’s a locker room culture that is pervasive in any sport and the NFL has its own set of rules, behavior, and yes, language.
But there’s a change coming.
When NFL draft hopeful Michael Sam announced that he’s gay the media onslaught was swift about how he’ll fit in with a team and within the NFL culture. That question now has changed to how the culture perhaps should change to fit him.
At a meeting at the NFL Combine John Wooten who is chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity within the league, told some NFL decision-makers at an awards ceremony Friday why his organization is pushing the league to take a stance on the the matter of eradicating the use of the controversial “N word” .
“We can’t control the rappers and the videos in this culture,” said Wooten, who during his playing days used to clear holes for Jim Brown. “But we can do something about what happens in the NFL.”
“The root of the word came from slavery,” Wooten told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday. “This is what we’ve got to get people to understand. Don’t tell me the word is desensitized or that it’s a term of endearment. The word was used to make black people feel inferior. If you’re using it, it tells me that you don’t respect yourself.”
NFL owners agreed, but the truth is that it will be difficult to police. Last year’s incidents with offensive language including the on-going Richie Incognito and Johnathan Martin situation has forced the NFL to confront this issue. By the way, there actually is a rule about offensive language in the NFL. It’s just not really policed and rarely enforced.
The divide about the use of the N-word is largely generational with the older generation being against it and the younger generation of NFL players feeling indifferent or not bothered by it at all.
“I’m kind of indifferent about it,” Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told USA TODAY Sports in a recent interview. “You’re never going to stop everybody from using it. It’s going to be hard to police.”
“If you policed it on the field, that would be a long day for you,” Sherman said. “There’s no reason to use a gay slur. But some guys use the N-word in regular conversation. It’s definitely context.
That may be true, but if the rule exists it needs to be enforced — no matter how the word is used. For some players and ex-players, that starts with the veteran players who should lead by example. Tony Gonzalez is an example. Gonzalez, the ex tight-end of the Atlanta Falcons, now working with CBS as an analyst,says that he took it upon himself to check players who used the word.
“That whole word, I’m not down with it, whether it’s with the ‘a’ or the ‘er,'” Gonzalez said.
“I got called a (Hispanic slur) or a (N-word),” he said. “That’s why it hits home with me. It cut like a knife.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge is that the word has been so commonplace in music and in locker rooms for so long that the real hurdle is the mentality. It has to start there first. Richard Sherman thinks this is where it gets tricky.
“Obviously, you don’t want to use the word like they did in the past. But some guys have been using it for so long, it’s almost like it’s second nature. So it’s going to be hard to get it out of their mind-set.”
This is definitely true. In the meantime while the NFL works to figure out how to police the speech of its players, it would serve the coaches and owners well to start enforcement. Set an expectation about locker room behavior now — force them to get their minds right, because a change is going to come.
What do you think?
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