By Aaron Leibowitz
I was hesitant to write about the hullabaloo being caused by British journalist Piers Morgan, because I don’t want to give more validation to a man who knows not of what he speaks. But when Morgan decided to write a Daily Mail column entitled, “If black Americans want the N-word to die, they will have to kill it themselves,” and then took to Twitter to hammer home his ignorance, I couldn’t help but think about how this sort of language policing permeates the world of sports. In particular, I thought about the National Football League’s attempts to penalize players for saying the N-word on the field.
If you scroll through Morgan’s twitter timeline, what you see is the product of a society that insists colorblindness is the cure for racism. Only colorblind thinking could lead Morgan, a white man, to believe he is qualified and justified in telling black people how to speak. When colorblindness is the goal, people lose sight of why racism is a problem in the first place: history and power dynamics, a.k.a. the very realities that give racial slurs their weight. In other words, who is speaking and how they are speaking matters. As Ta-Nehisi Coates tweeted on Monday: “Banning [the N-word] means exempting black people from a basic rule of communication — that words take on meaning from context and relationship.”
When we ignore context and assume everyone’s language holds equal weight at all times, the result is Piers Morgan insisting that his opinion on how black people should use an anti-black slur is something the public ought to hear. In sports, the result is the NFL believing it has the right to issue 15-yard penalties for any and all uses of the N-word, regardless of who’s saying it or how it’s being said. That means 15 yards for Riley Cooper — this Riley Cooper — and 15 yards for our friend Richard Sherman.
Sherman, not surprisingly, had something to say about this proposed rule. “It’s an atrocious idea,” he told Peter King in March. “It’s almost racist, to me. It’s weird they’re targeting one specific word. Why wouldn’t all curse words be banned then?”
As Sherman suggests, there are double standards in the league’s administration of punishment, something he also addressed in discussing the alleged “gang ties” of fellow football player DeSean Jackson. But by targeting the N-word, the league is simply doing what it and other pro sports organizations have done forever: chastising individual players for “bad behavior” while turning a blind eye to the larger problems occurring within its own walls. The NFL would like to be lauded for tackling the N-word head on, but it has no interest in policing the use of a racial slur as the name of its team from Washington, D.C. When the NFL gets to play language police, commissioner Roger Goodell — as opposed to the actual targets of harmful language — gets to decide which slurs warrant a slap on the wrist and which ones put more money into his pockets.
Conversations about racial slurs are valid — after all, the words we use are always linked to lived experiences and larger, structural issues. But these conversations should never take place in a vacuum, never without an appreciation of the history and context that gives those words their tremendous power. Sometimes, that context dictates who gets to say what — not from a legal standpoint, but simply from a standpoint of human understanding and respect.
That means Roger Goodell’s personal (and corporate) opinions about the N-word should hold less weight than any individual black player’s, even if Goodell is the almighty protector of the NFL shield. It means that, even if Washington football team owner Dan Snyder and other non-Native Americans believe the D.C. team name is okay, it’s not for them to decide.
Just for a moment, the Roger Goodells, Dan Snyders and Piers Morgans of the world would be well-served to take a deep breath, take a step back, and listen.