We Should Listen More to Richard Sherman

FUTURAMA-Season-6B-Neutopia1In an episode of Futurama called “Neutopia,” the Planet Express team proposes an idea to create a girly calendar to help lower their company debts. Hermes, the company’s Rastafarian accountant, points out that their contracts contain the stipulation that “All female employees must pose nude if requested.” Amy and Leela (the company’s only two female employees) object, arguing that this policy is sexist and discriminatory. Hermes cleverly points out that the contracts of the male employees contains the exact same stipulation: “All female employees must pose nude if requested.”

The point of this story (other than a feeble attempt to justify my excessive television consumption) is that sometimes “equality” is not so equal.

Change gears: The Wells Report recently castigated the Dolphins for the bullying that took place in their locker room. The bullying was largely carried out by Richie Incognito, a white player whose pattern of racist and homophobic abuse directed at teammate Jonathan Martin and others was taken to remarkable extremes. (Incognito did little to help his public image by beating the crap out of his own Ferrari and then calling the cops.) Attempts in recent months to defend the actions of Incognito have often bordered on the sickening: who in their right mind would defend such plainly bigoted language as that expressed by Incognito? Not the NFL, apparently; after the release of the Wells Report, the league proposed a blanket ban on the use of the N-word on the playing field. Under the proposal, using this term would result in a 15-yard penalty, the same as (for example) a helmet-to-helmet hit or roughing the passer. (I’ll leave it to you to sort out the logic of this penalty.)

I have no doubt at all that the NFL has its heart in the right place here. Whether motivated by honest appreciation for the diversity of the players in the league or by a selfish desire to avoid such negative attention in the future, the N-word ban is obviously an attempt to remove a potential source of offensiveness and psychological injury from the league.

The problem, as Richard Sherman noted a couple weeks ago, is that this proposed ban will not impact all players equally. The word in question is overwhelmingly used by Black players in a way that is far from universally offensive; rather, it is a way of pointing to a shared sense of community and identity in opposition to the hegemonic (read: white) power structures that govern the NFL and American society more broadly. Sherman argued that the proposed ban is “almost racist.”

He’s absolutely correct about this. As much as the NFL might be trying to make a positive social statement with the ban, they are doing so with typical cultural insensitivity and deafness. The proposed ban would overwhelmingly turn into a penalty for being Black on the football field, since, as Sherman notes, the N-word is used overwhelmingly by Black players.

This term holds a particularly fraught place in American culture: a word with a long presence in slavery and post-slavery segregation and racism, it was also transformed into a term of community and inclusion. The word is common in African-American slang (as in hip hop culture). Some people argue that even “positive” uses of the N-word should be eliminated, as the term cannot ever be shorn of its racist associations; others propose that the racist origins are what give the term its power as a term of Black pride and identity through struggle against racism.

I don’t wish to take a position on this debate here, as it’s extraordinarily complicated and both sides have very strong arguments. However, the NFL’s proposed ban represents the worst of both worlds. The ban might eliminate some of the blatantly racist use of the N-word; but it would do so at the cost of circumscribing the notion of Blackness and penalizing a great many players for expressing their personal, cultural identities in ways that they should have the freedom to choose. The former is an admirable goal, but it cannot come at the cost of the latter, which would be a much more fundamental form of racism that is harder to fight against.

This is a case where “equality” is not equal for everyone. Rather, only those players who share the NFL’s official vision of cultural equality are entitled to the protections of their rules. Everyone else will have to live with the penalties for being themselves.

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