The NFL's Utter Hypocrisy About Racism


Earlier this year, Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin shocked the sports world by abruptly leaving his team, citing "bullying" from teammates, namely Richie Incognito. The subsequent investigation yielded text messages and voicemails from Incognito using the dreaded n-word and using degrading language in regards to Martin's sister. The entire fiasco has been a public relations nightmare for the NFL, revealing the vulgar, crude locker room environment that players are surrounded by every day. So, as usual, the NFL has offered a knee-jerk solution that's more about defending its image than creating any real change.

The NFL is expected to implement a 15-yard penalty – one of the strictest in-game penalties during a game – on any team in which a player uses the n-word. The rule requires referees to decipher what players are saying in the heat of the game and administer game-changing penalties based on deniable audio. The rule isn't only difficult to accurately enforce, it's largely ineffective in addressing the racism that's the underlying problem. And the NFL doesn't seem to care.

Whenever faced with a potential public relations crisis, the NFL opts to make grand, largely ineffective rule changes. For example, after allegedly trying to subdue reports on long-term concussion effects on players, the NFL pushed overall confusing and overbearing penalties for "head-to-head" hits. As the NFL's commissioner, Roger Goodell, preached the importance of head safety, he kept trying to squeeze every last penny out of fans by pushing for longer seasons – which would mean more hits and injuries for athletes. While the NFL was fining players for head-on collisions, it was being sued for rejecting safer helmets in order to save money.

This new n-word policy reeks of the same hypocrisy. Roger Goodell is an employee of the NFL. He answers to its owners and is treated like royalty as long as he pleases them. That would explain why his 2012 salary was more than $40m. It would also explain why Goodell is solely concerned with penalizing players while letting the owners run rampant on the league. The n-word policy is a reflection of that preferential treatment. Because, while players are getting fined and teams are getting penalized for spewing the n-word, Goodell has yet to demand that the Washington Redskins change its name.

The term "Redskin" has been considered by Native Americans to be wildly offensive, and they've urged the NFL to change the mascot for years. Still, the owner, Dan Snyder, has insisted that the name will remain for the foreseeable future and Goodell hasn't forced the issue. Much like the concussion inconsistencies, the NFL is penalizing one form of hate speech while selling merchandise and encouraging fans to cheer for a franchise that employs the hate speech in its mascot. But changing the Redskins' name would impact the owners, and neither Goodell nor the NFL care enough to do this. Instead, they've created a penalty that digs into players' pockets. Goodell doesn't, after all, have to answer to them.

At its heart, the idea of eliminating hate speech from a football field – or any place, really – is an ostensibly honorable goal. Unfortunately, the NFL has opted to try and improve its image instead. The league hopes we'll celebrate its attempts to cover its own back the next time a player says he can't take the bullying. The league wants to jump up and shout "look at we did!" if Michael Sam – who will be the first openly gay player in NFL history – gets treated differently by any locker room bigots or opponents on the field. But the NFL isn't actually going to change anything about the language used between players either in locker rooms or on the field. And, honestly, it takes more than one arbitrary rule to undo the centuries of damage that racial slurs have caused. If the NFL really wants to effect change, it should try to address the racism at the root of the problem, instead of acting in its own self-interest. And changing the Redskins name is a good place to start.

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