By Jason Keidel
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These are some pyrotechnic times, with people and ideas forcing their way into our souls. While our fleeting old-world biases fade into 1985, we are now pondering the use of the most nuclear noun of all – the ‘N’ word.
The NFL is considering a heavy tax on it, citing the fact that the gridiron is a workplace, and thus they can control the language and lexicon of its players. It’s probably the most delicate and toxic topic we’ll ever discuss in sports.
“While they’re technically correct that an NFL team is an employer and hence the players, employees, need to adhere to certain standards – some established by law, others by the boss – we’re not exactly talking about a forest of cubicles on Park Avenue.
So let’s stop pretending that a football field is your garden variety work environment. Where else do employees gobble pain pills like Skittles, jam needles of toradol into their joints, punch each other into a frenzy, then run into the office, with the goal of pummeling their competition?
With that kind of chaos comes a breach of normal etiquette. So, now the NFL will ask a linebacker to run head-first into a running back, but refrain from foul language?
Sure, the ‘N’ word holds a special perch in American history. Only a fool would dispute the venom dripping from its ancient use. But does it stop there? What about gay slurs? Hispanic slurs? What about any group of people around whom a host of degrading words have been created?
And how do you call it? When a player says it to another player, or an official? Are you allowed to say it on the sideline? Can a coach say it? Can you say it in the locker room? In the shower? On the team bus?
It feels dirty just talking about it. Partly because the word itself is so ugly, because we can’t even agree who is allowed to say it or how they can say it, and also because legislating language just feels wrong, no matter how wretched a word may be.
No doubt the ’80s were a different decade. We who came of age during it in New York City and happened to worship sports absorbed our vernacular from the streets, playgrounds, basketball courts, and Eddie Murphy. Just watch “Raw” or “Delirious” and you’ll hear a cluster of curses that would make a trucker cringe.
We were drenched in vile verbs and nouns. And we were kids who wanted to be cool, and we thought the more adult our language, the more serious we sounded. It’s silly, but kids always want to be adults, and adults want to be kids.
But it didn’t stop after 1989. I just watched a Showtime comedy special featuring a rather funny guy named DeRay Davis, and he belches the word every other minute. Do comedians have license to say it? Musicians? Rappers are seen as the vanguards of vulgarity, but all they really do is feast on the climate we established years ago.
Is the NFL a trial balloon for other forms of entertainment, or just a prehistoric setting that is way overdue in catching up to our more sanitized times?
First we need an honest dialogue, which requires us to admit we’ve uttered almost every vulgarity in the catalogue. Some say how you pronounce the final vowel of the word makes no difference. But there was a time when it made all the difference.
It digs up old stereotypes, now buttressed against the new sensitivities, which are offended by nearly every objectionable word. Is that good? Should we remold our language based on where we happen to be at the moment? We do that already, of course, as few of us speak the same way at work, home, and with our homeboys.
No one has the definitive answer. There’s no rule book, playbook, or treatise on the proper use of profanity. And if it starts with one word then people will clamor for the removal of another word. And then where do you stop?
Simply, you have to allow none of it or all of it. There’s a Big Brother quality to censorship, no matter how benign its intention. But if you do it, go all the way. And the NFL must address the clear hypocrisy of banning one racial slur while stuffing the Redskins issue in the deep pockets of Daniel Snyder.
Despite our assertions of individuality, we are an obedient species. Just as we regurgitated the slurs of yesteryear, we will probably go where the masses take us. It’s just a matter of how far we take it.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.
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