The professional football contest between the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos was what most interested us about the past weekend’s sporting scene, but all the chatter seemed to be about what has come to be known as the “N-word.”
This seemingly ineradicable racial slur is the source of recurring controversies, which are by no means confined to the sports world, but the latest brouhahas have all originated with athletes. Perhaps the word is more frequently employed by people in that occupation, or perhaps their inordinate prominence in society makes their use of it all the more valuable as a teaching tool by those who still hope to eradicate it, but in any case the sports conversation has lately turned “N-word.”
It started when a massively muscle-bound lineman on the Miami Dolphins was accused of bullying another massively muscle-bound lineman on the team, which is the sort of thing we don’t remember hearing about back in the manly era when Vince Lombardi was prowling the sidelines of National Football League games, and the offending behavior inevitably included a text-message that used the slur. Felonious threats of physical injury were allegedly made in the message, but even with the current craze for condemning bullying the slur got most of the attention. The offense was seemingly compounded by the fact that the message was sent by a massively muscle-bound white player to a massively muscle-bound player of mixed race, who was rather precisely referred to in the text-massage as a half-an-N-word, but the ensuing avalanche of stories somehow complicated what seemed a clear-cut case of boorishness. Teammates of all skin hues rushed to the accused player’s defense, saying that threats and physical intimidation were necessary to toughen up to the new employee, who had somehow reached the professional ranks despite the disadvantages of being raised by educated parents and matriculating at Stanford University, and that the language used was standard locker room fare. One dark-skinned player further explained that the accused player was an “honorary” “n-word” by virtue of his massively muscle-bound machismo and therefore entitled to use of the slur.
The notion that the word is acceptable when used by someone of a darker skin color is now commonplace. A professional basketball player who used the slur in a “tweet” was recently fined $25,000 for the offense, a sizeable amount even to someone drawing professional basketball player’s salary, and he offered the same justification. The resultant controversy prompted two well-known dark-hued sports broadcasters to admit that they use the slur routinely, with neither offering any apology for the habit, and one indignantly implied that criticism of the practice is an effort by lighter-skinned people to dictate the behavior of their darker brethren. Both agree that lighter-skinned people should not be permitted use of the word, but for reasons having to do with linguistic empowerment or something it should be widely used by the darker-skinned.
Although we have no desire to dictate the behavior of anyone, beyond the obvious rules against rape and robbery and murder and such that the requirements of a civilized society, but it does seem a sign of strange times that the stigma against racial slurs is regarded as racist and racial equality is to be achieved by having different rules of social etiquette for different races. We would prefer that the word fall into disuse for the same old-fashioned reasons that we were taught to avoid it, because it is rude and vulgar, but that seems unlikely now that rudeness and vulgarity are celebrated as authentic self-expression and righteous rebellion against rules that vanished decades ago. The great appeal of racial slurs is that they’re only words left with any shock value, and the easiest way to gain all-important attention is to shout them with a carefully posed defiance at a gullible media.
— Bud Norman