Lowell Cohn: NFL's attempt to legislate speech is ridiculous

  • FILE - In this Sept. 30, 2013 file photo, Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito (68), center left, and and tackle Jonathan Martin (71), center right, sit on the bench in the second half of an NFL football game against the New Orleans Saints in New Orleans. About halfway between the start of exhibition games and the Super Bowl, there have been plenty of unwanted story lines. Bullying in the locker room, coaches collapsing, serious injuries to marquee players, the D.C. Council's call on Washington's pro football team to change its name _ examples from the past week alone. (AP Photo/Bill Feig, File)

This is about the N-word and the National Football League. The N-word is so bad I can't even write the actual word. I imply it. I suggest it with that little dash and the word "word." But you know what the word is. It is a curse word, something I can't write in a newspaper, something I and you never should say any time anywhere.

The NFL wants to ban the N-word from its playing fields and locker rooms. The NFL has its heart in the right place and we applaud the league for wanting to ban this awful word.

In the proposed rule, officials would assess a 15-yard penalty against a player and his team if the player uses the N-word. The Competition Committee will discuss this rule next week and, if the committee endorses the rule, it will be sent to the owners for a ratification vote.

Before I begin this paragraph, I must admit I'm nervous, scared to go on. This topic is fraught with danger. I'm afraid I'll write the wrong thing or offend someone without intending to. So, please, bear with me. The idea of making a rule banning the N-word on playing fields and in locker rooms is a bad idea. I would vote against it if I were on the Competition Committee.

I'll start with simple stuff and work up to the hard stuff. Players on opposing teams in most sports say rude — awful — things to each other all the time. They say these things in the heat of competition. I don't believe a governing body can adequately legislate that kind of talk.

FYI, I am not talking about your workplace or mine. If I use the N-word in my newsroom, I will get into big trouble. And I would deserve it. My gut feeling tells me a playing field is different than a newsroom or an insurance office or a college English department, and different rules apply. Players fight all the time and don't get thrown out of a game. Start a fight in your office and they'll call the cops.

I'm sure someone smarter than I am can destroy the logic of the preceding paragraph.

I don't understand why the Competition Committee would focus on one word, the N-word. Black players call each other the N-word all the time. They do it every day on the field and in the locker room. I believe it is a term of endearment and inclusion. It is not a putdown. It is a way of saying, "Only we can use that word. It is a verbal sign of our solidarity and togetherness."

If the new rule passes, the league would be saying black athletes cannot express their bond using one particular word. That seems harsh and wrongheaded. I can imagine a black athlete exclaiming with indignation, "You're not going to tell me how to talk."

I don't claim totally to understand what African Americans feel when they use the N-word with each other. I wouldn't presume. But when I go back to Brooklyn and visit my old friend Stuie, whom I've known since we were 9 and who is Jewish like me, I might, as a way to connect after a long absence, use a word or phrase non-Jews and Jews might consider offensive.

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