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

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

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

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Sunday, March 02, 2014.

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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.¬

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ‚Äúincivility,‚ÄĚ if not outright hate.¬

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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‚Äô ‚Äď 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.¬

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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
‚Äútoday‚Äôs players‚ÄĚ show for the game, each other, and social norms.¬

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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.¬

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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,‚ÄĚ writes¬† John F. Banzhaf III:¬† ‚ÄúThe
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.‚Äô‚Ä̬

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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 ‚Äúsavaged‚ÄĚ other under the
guise of twenty-first century sporting culture.¬†¬

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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 ‚Äď disciplined‚Äďand desirable NFL players. ¬†¬†¬†¬

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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.¬

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With each
case, the vision of white saviors is at work. 
From reclaiming the ‚Äúfallen savage‚ÄĚ 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.

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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‚Äôs intransigence nor its
proposed linguistic policing are about antiracism, justice, or challenging
white supremacy.¬

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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.

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