N-word looms as the final frontier

Beware complacency after this pleasing period of progress in the fight against racist and homophobic behaviour

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 11:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2014, 11:14pm

We are certainly lucky to be living in the most enlightened of times and nowhere is that more true than in the world of sport.

Because the bond between teammates transcends any bias, we have a number of disparate elements working together for a common goal. Theoretically it should not matter what your race, creed or sexual orientation is because you are teammates first and foremost. Theoretically, at least, because as we know not everything is that simple.

Racism and homophobic behaviour have existed in sport since as long as they have been keeping score, and while great strides have been taken to eradicate both, there is still much work to be done.

For many, this move is political correctness run amok, while others contend the banning of the word is long overdue.

However, the events over the past week in American sport have been quite significant in the fight against gay discrimination. When Jason Collins stepped on the court for the Brooklyn Nets this week he became the first ever openly gay NBA player. Collins is on a 10-day contract with the Nets but the inherent hoopla for a guy who plays only a couple of minutes a game has been staggering. Even more shocking is that his Nets jersey is now the No 1 seller in the entire league. In the entire league!

Also this week, Michael Sam, a US university football star who recently announced he was gay, took part in the NFL combine in preparation for next month's NFL draft where he is expected to be one of the top picks.

Over in Arizona, Governor Jan Brewer announced that she was vetoing a bill that would have allowed businesses to use religious beliefs to refuse services to gays. With the 2015 Super Bowl to be held in Phoenix, the NFL had let the state know in no uncertain terms that they would consider moving the game if the bill passed.

Now it all becomes a moot point and with so much progress being made on the gay rights front, it seemed like it was time to take care of some racially insensitive issues when it was announced that the NFL is now looking into penalising players who use the N-word on the field. Soon referees could be making calls like, "Number 72, 15 yards for using a hateful and disgusting pejorative".

The N-word; the final frontier. For many, this move is political correctness run amok, while others contend the banning of the word is long overdue.

The truth is that the NFL is a multibillion- dollar industry and the ultimate made-for TV sport with cameras and microphones everywhere. Very little can be hidden on the field and the league spends millions annually in promoting equality and zero tolerance for racism. There is arguably no more offensive word in the English language than the N-word and the moment someone uses it, even in casual conversation among friends, it hangs ominously in the air.

But watch a Quentin Tarantino movie or listen to so many of today's hip-hop artists and the word is omnipresent proving that when it comes to the N-word, there is a massive grey area. Many blacks claim that it's OK for them to use it on each other but for whites it is forbidden.

Even reputable and popular media pundits like Michael WiIbon of ESPN, who is black, say that the discussion over the use of the word is strictly for blacks alone to decide. Wilbon notes that with no black owners and a white commissioner, it should not be left up to the NFL to decide how to use the word.

But far more troubling to me are the logistics of implementing a rule against it. The NFL is easily the most overregulated and officious professional sport with a litany of rules and regulations to enforce. By adding one more, it could be total chaos particularly when a referee hears the N-word in a scrum but is not sure who used it. Does this mean you go to replays to identify the offending party?

Again, I know we live in enlightened times and I truly appreciate all the effort and sacrifice that has gone into getting us there. But it's not exactly a delicate place deep down in the NFL trenches. There are things that are done and said that constantly compromise civility and barbaric and primal behaviour is often encouraged by coaches. Still, despite the brutality there is no place for the N-word and aside from a few notable instances, it is usually blacks using the word on other blacks. Three-quarters of the players in the league are black. In the end, the onus should be on them to refrain from using it. They have to be responsible for their own actions.