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By David J. Leonard and C. Richard King | With thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Sunday, March 02, 2014.


At best the recent news that the NFL would consider instituting a penalty for use of the N-word on the playing field is ironic or contradictory. This from a league that has maintained an active defense of the R-word as a legitimate and honorific name for one of its more popular franchises.  At worst, each word highlights the entrenched racism of sports culture, and society at large, and a refusal to confront white power. 


One word is read a racial slur, and only a racial slur, and must not be uttered even as the structures of violence, degradation and inequality remain entrenched in society; the other word, despite linguistic, historic, and psychological evidence, is framed as anything but a racial slur which can be used in marketing, media coverage, and fan cheers.


The former word is taken to be a reference to the bad old days of racism, best forgotten;  a reminder of the unresolved history of slavery and the social death that rendered Blacks as property to be exchanged and exploited. The latter word is defended as a tradition, ideal or so it is claimed to the so-called time after race, the raceless present, and more a trademark, a valuable piece of property from which Dan Snyder, the league, media conglomerates, and countless others make obscene profits from distortion and dehumanization.


And it is hard not to see in this pattern that some kinds of racism matter; some types of utterances elicit discomfort and unease; some can be seen and described, and demand public action, while others remain invisible, unspeakable, and unmoving.


After a season that began with a white player, drunk at a concert, calling a security guard a n****r because he felt slighted,  and ended with a damning report on the culture of the Miami Dolphins’ locker room--in which use of the same word figured prominently in the bullying of Jonathan Martin--it is perhaps understandable that the NFL wants to be responsive to “incivility,” if not outright hate. 


Yet, the NFL's refusal to deal with violence, to deal with racism in its many forms, points to the true motives here.  This is ultimately about regulating (black) players’ – their utterances, their agency, and their bodies. Just as the Palace Brawl was used to rationalize and justify the NBA Dress Code, the elimination of straight from high school players, and countless other initiatives that disciplined and punished the NBA’s primarily black players, Goodell is using Riley Cooper, Richie Incognito and the growing debate around the N-word to increase his power. 


This is all about bout respect, decency and discipline, as defined by Roger Goodell and his corporate partners.  This is all about control, it's about power, the politics of respectability, disciplining and punishment,  selling it's corporate multiculturalism, and regulating the voices and bodies of its primarily black players.  This is why the focus has been on black players, on discipline, on the lack of respect that “today’s players” show for the game, each other, and social norms. 


Not surprisingly then, some see in these contradictions as self-serving, even callous cynical hypocrisy.  While acknowledging these patterns, we think they are part of a larger, unmarked problem, namely white power. And the proposed rule change and the defense of the Washington DC franchise both must be read as efforts to protect white power while maintain control over discourse and keeping the voices and bodies of people of color in their prescribed places.  Despite appearance to the contrary both the refusal to #dropthename and the push to #droptheslur reflect a refusal to challenge racism.  Each seeks to preserve white power and the profitability of the NFL; each privileges white desire ahead of anything else. 


Yet, even critics of the R-word like Peter King praised the proposal to penalize the use of the N-word.  An editorial in Indian Country Today celebrated the move, yet demanded that these protections be extended to other marginalized and disparaged communities. “Eliminating racism and the use of racist language from the NFL is a worthy and long overdue goal, but it cannot be confined to just one race,” writes  John F. Banzhaf III:  “The use of the word "n*ggers" is reprehensible, especially in this day and age, but so are the use of words like "ch*nks," "w*tbacks," "r*gheads," and "r*dskins.’” 


That the NFL’s refuses  to #dropthename and actively attempts to rid the league of the N-word with more vigor than it has shown with head trauma, reflects a shared logic.  The D.C. team mascot is purportedly about honor whereas the N-word conveys dishonor and disrespect.  A case of the  white saviors disciplining and redeeming the “savaged” other under the guise of twenty-first century sporting culture.  


The preservation of one slur and the efforts to punish the use of another slur is also about money.  Clearly Dan Snyder, and the NFL generate billions of dollars through the commodification of anti-Indian racism.  It would be a mistake to see the proposed rule as anything but a shrill capitalist move that seeks to profit off a crafted image of the league.  It would be a mistake to ignore the importance of selling respectable – disciplined–and desirable NFL players.     


Surely fearful about potential lawsuits regarding hostile work environments, the NFL is using this moment to position itself as a leader in the fight against racism.  It’s selling itself as a force of multiculturalist good, as a source of progress. Yet, money is not the only thing at stake: the narratives surrounding American exceptionalism and the claims of honor for Native Americans is at play; the vision of the NFL as a post-racial promise land is in the spotlight. 


With each case, the vision of white saviors is at work.  From reclaiming the “fallen savage” as noble and honorable, to purifying the league of its pathological and racially harmful practices, the white figure is yet again celebrated and empowered.  Yes, it is about money, but it is also about the racial logics that are always at play.


The debate about the R-word and N-word embody white power.  In this sense, the refusal to #dropthename fits with the politics of criminalizing the "N Word."  Not surprising, neither the league’s intransigence nor its proposed linguistic policing are about antiracism, justice, or challenging white supremacy. 



C. Richard King is Professor of  Ethnic Studies at Washington State University at Pullman and the author/editor of several books, including Team Spirits: The Native American Mascot Controversy and Postcolonial America.

David J. Leonard 
is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman.  Leonard’s latest books include 
After Artest: Race and the Assault on Blackness  (SUNY Press) and African Americans on Television: Race-ing for Ratings (Praeger Press) co-edited with Lisa Guerrero. He is currently working on a book Presumed Innocence: White Mass Shooters in the Era of Trayvon about gun violence in America.


America: N-Words, R-Words and the Defense of White Power in the NFL

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