Use of the n-word on an NFL field next season will result in a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, as the league has concluded that it constitutes verbal abuse. Enforcing the existing rule that outlaws threatening, abusive language will be a point of emphasis next year.
The game's African-American trailblazers will be glad to see the n-word go. While most of today's African-American football players take no offense to hearing the n-word from one of their own, some who paved the way for them are reviled by it. Warren Moon, Art Shell and Marlin Briscoe shared their thoughts with us.
* * *
After Warren Moon's Oilers lost to the Patriots 23-13 on Oct. 8, 1989, Moon was exiting the field at the old Foxboro Stadium. Having not played a particularly efficient game and thrown two interceptions, he walked up the hill toward the visitor's locker room, where players passed a chain link fence that separated fans from the field. One fan standing behind the fence was all over Moon, calling him names unfit for print; one name went too far. The n-word. Moon tried to scale the fence and go after the offender. Teammates held him back and ushered him to the locker room.
Moon, now 57, was the NFL's first great African-American quarterback. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but the NFL had no use for him initially. He went undrafted, perhaps because he insisted on playing quarterback when some teams wanted to try him at other positions. So he signed with the CFL and won five Grey Cups before finding a place under center in the NFL.
He was never called the n-word by a friend. He was called it in hate mail, however, and on the field.
After a 1990 game in Houston, Moon's 8-year-old son, Joshua, came in the locker room to see his father. He was in tears. Moon asked why he was crying, assuming it was because the Oilers had lost. He was wrong. Joshua looked up and asked, "Dad, why are those people calling you that name out there?'" The n-word again. "Right there in the locker room I had to explain about ignorance," Moon said. "He didn't understand it. The people who were close to me had to hear it in the stands. We were in the South, and going through some lean years our first couple of years. There was a lot of hatred in the stands in Houston toward me. I knew it was going to be that way when I came to the NFL."
So, forgive Moon if he tenses up when he hears young men use a term that threatened to be a barrier between him and his dreams. "When I was coming up 20 or 30 years ago, that word meant only one thing -- hate," Moon said. "It was a way of degrading someone. Every time I was called it, there was hate behind it. I don't have any positive feelings about the word. I feel the word should be out of our vocabulary. It takes us backward."
Some argue that a new pronunciation gives it a different connotation, but when the "er" sound at the end replaced with an "a" sound, Moon doesn't see the difference. "It's still the same word," he said. "You can try to justify it if you want to, but there still is a stigma with the word."
Moon understands that football players are merely mimicking pop culture by using the word. He wishes they would understand that they can influence pop culture.
Moon believes the word is offensive even if used solely by African Americans. "How can people of other races understand how much the word is hated by a group of people if that group of people continues to use it?" he said. "If black people use it, it gives other races license to use the word the way they want to use it."
* * *
When Art Shell was head coach of the Raiders in the early 1990s, one of his players came to the sideline during a game and informed Shell that he had been called the n-word by an opposing player. Shell, the first modern era African-American head coach, was not pleased. The rest of the Raiders were so enraged that they tried to physically get back at the offending player later in the game. "It's a vile word," Shell said. "It's demeaning. It's a word that tries to define who you are. It says, 'You don't belong. You are like a beast.' It's designed to attack a group of people and declare they are subhuman."
Shell, 67, does not want to hear about how the youth of today use the n-word differently. "It's all the same," he said. "Because you change a couple letters or add a letter, it ain't different. It means the same thing, and that doesn't cut it with me. Anybody that uses that word and says it's a term of endearment, they don't know history."
Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, never heard the word from opponents or teammates during his 15-year playing career. But he heard it in the 1950s in South Carolina. "When I was growing up and walking along the road, white folks would holler out of their cars, 'n----- this, n----- that,'" Shell said.
Shell, who also worked in the league office as a vice president in charge of football operations, is all for banning the word from the NFL. If it were up to him, it would be banned from the English language. "I've talked with my kids about how we as black people had to work hard to try to get rid of this type of name calling and get civil rights where they belong so we could be equal like the law wants us to be," Shell said. "This country is created for all men, all women to be on the same footing. That word indicates we are not equal."
* * *
Marlin Briscoe was a volunteer assistant football coach at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif., about seven years ago when he overheard a couple of African-American players using the n-word in friendly banter. "I stopped whatever I was doing," he said. "I explained to them that the word is not tolerated on my watch. I explained what African-American people had to go through in the '50s and '60s. Our young people don't know the history of that word, what it means, what we had to go through as a race."
Those kids also might not have had any idea who was talking to them. Before Briscoe was a high school coach and a volunteer at Boys and Girls clubs, he was the first African-American starting quarterback in modern pro football. He started his career in 1968 as a defensive back, but was moved to quarterback after the Broncos' starter broke his collarbone. That year, Briscoe threw 14 touchdown passes -- twice as many as John Elway threw in his debut year in Denver. He averaged 17.1 yards per completion to lead the AFL. But the next year he was on the bench, so he asked for his release. He was picked up in Buffalo, where he was switched to wide receiver. He never played quarterback again, but his achievement that year was historic.
"In 1968, it was a volatile period in our country's history with regard to civil rights," he said. "To break the color barrier at the quarterback position, it was huge. You had to satisfy so many people -- not just whites, but your own race. Even though I played only one year, at least it proved a black man could think and lead at that level, the highest level of the game."
Briscoe never has called another African American the n-word. He remembers hearing it in the stands a few times when his high school team in Omaha would play a predominantly white team across town. But he does not recall hearing it a lot, because it was understood that when the word was used, a fight would ensue.
Not long ago Briscoe was hitting golf balls at a driving range. Two white kids nearby called each other the n-word. Briscoe stopped hitting balls and looked at the kids. They apologized. He understood why they felt license to use the word. "They use it because our young black kids use it so flippantly that they feel they can use it, too," he said. "Our youth uses the term like they drink soda pop. That really irks me."
Briscoe, 68, believes young people do not understand what the word means, no matter how it is used or pronounced. "If you look back on the history of civil rights and the strides that African Americans have made, you have to ban it," Briscoe said. "We lost lives. Churches were bombed. A lot of that was related to that word."
Prohibiting the n-word is a way of recognizing the journeys taken by Briscoe, Shell and Moon, as well as Shack Harris, Bobby Mitchell, Marion Motley, Ozzie Newsome, Fritz Pollard, Woody Strode, Willie Thrower, Kenny Washington, Doug Williams, Bill Willis and others. By being forced to respect one another and ultimately themselves, today's NFL players will extend that respect to these pioneers.