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


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.

It is a verbal shortcut, an endearment even, and Stuie will laugh and say the same thing to me. I don't like when non-Jews, when people I am not connected with, use such a term with me. I feel offended. I remember these feelings when I think of black athletes using the N-word with each other.

If the league wants to ban the N-word, it should ban all offensive words for black people. The N-word is the most prominent, but there are others in our culture, many others. And if the league bans all the offensive words for black people, it should ban all ethnic slurs and homophobic slurs and religious slurs and slurs based on where someone grew up. The Competition Committee is considering banning other slurs. Therein lies the madness.

If the league gets into the anti-slur business, it will have to print an entire lexicon of slurs — the many ugly names for gays and Jews and blacks and more. And the lexicon will keep growing. If the league gets into the anti-slur business, it will get itself into a ridiculous business.

You may say I'm wrong. Richie Incognito allegedly used the N-word verbally and in texts to Jonathan Martin. And that was wrong. But Incognito did more. He allegedly harassed Martin. It wasn't just one incident in an angry moment. It was again and again — an entire campaign against Martin.

That is different from yelling something offensive on the field and then lining up for the next play. I don't believe an NFL player, a black man, will stop playing, will lose track of the game because some moron on the other side called him the N-word.

So what am I proposing?

I'm proposing this. Don't pass the rule. Don't try to codify talk. If someone says something hateful — these things have been said countless times — let players ignore the words or let them settle the score on the field, as they always have.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.