Language is an issue in virtually any workplace, and the NFL is no exception. Last month, news hit on Pro Football Talk, among other sites, that the NFL was considering levying a 15-yard penalties for the use of racial slurs on the field.
The question, should the NFL decide to move forward with penalizing teams for the use of racial slurs, is whether or not the league can cut down their use on the field.
In short, it seems likely the NFL could cut down the use of racial slurs with a stiff penalty, but there’s simply no way to legislate such words out of the game altogether. For that to be possible, officials would have to be able to catch every instance of a player using a racial slur, and they’d have to assess the penalty every single time. Outside of putting a microphone on every player, that’s simply not going to happen.
Aside from simply policing the use of racial slurs, the NFL then must worry about penalizing inoffensive uses of words that can be slurs in come context.
As Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk explains, “However, the NFL may find such a rule tougher for its officials to implement than it sounds. Would the NFL provide every player, coach and official with a list of words that can’t be used? And who would determine which words make the list? Some slurs may be considered offensive in some contexts but not in others. Members of a racial or ethnic groups sometimes use slurs among themselves, with no offense intended or taken. If one black player uses the N-word toward another black player, and a white official hears it and throws a penalty flag, that may open a can of worms the NFL would rather avoid.”
The underlying issue, beyond trying to improve society in general, is that on-field microphones sometimes pick up players saying something offensive. This is usually followed by a hasty apology by the broadcasters calling the game. The league would love to be able to keep such offensive language off the airwaves, but just because the audience hears it at home doesn’t necessarily mean the officials on the field heard anything inappropriate.
Although it wasn’t a racial slur, the NFL is looking for ways to keep language such as Blaine Gabbert’s F-bomb off the airwaves.
Such penalties also have the potential to anger fans in the stands at home. Imagine this, a team gets a big stop on third down late in a game, and as the defense walks towards the sideline, a yellow flag flies for the use of a racial slur. Such a non-football related penalty has the potential to alter the outcome of some of the biggest games of the season. Is that really something the NFL wants to explore?
The NFL could potentially cut down on the usage of racial slurs on the field, but there’s no practical way to actually eliminate their use altogether. Because of the effect trying to police such language with penalties could have, the NFL may ultimately want to stay away from the topic altogether. As it is, excessive language directed at a player will result in a penalty anyway, and for the time being, that’s probably where the NFL will decide to stick.