Language at Work: Should the NFL Penalize Players For Using This Word?

By Eric B. Meyer

In a few weeks, the National Football League owners are going to consider a proposed rule governing the use of the “N”-word during a football game. If the rule goes into effect, any team with a player who uses the “N”-word during a game, will be assessed a 15-yard penalty.

Players, young and old, disagree on the rule.

Here are Michael Wilbon and Jason Whitlock from ESPN’s Outside the Lines debating the merits of the proposed new rule.

Is the proposed rule “almost racist?”

In a recent edition of The MMQB on CNNSI, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman told sportswriter Peter King that “[Banning the n-word] is an atrocious idea.

Sherman, who claims that the proposed rule is “almost racist,” explained that the “N-word ending in -er’ is racist, but the n-word ending in -a’ is not, when used among African-Americans.”

That view doesn’t resonate with former NFL player Harry Carson.

“I find it very disheartening that in our society today we’re having a debate about the N-words being used as a term of endearment,” Carson said on Sunday. “If that’s a term of endearment, go up to your grandfather, or an elderly black person, and use it on them. See how they react. For those who use it, I say they have no sense of history.”

The NFL, like any other workplace, should promote respect.

Promoting respect in the workplace

Whether it’s splitting hairs, or the line between “-er” and “-a” is much deeper, as an employment lawyer, I advise clients to remind their workforce that, when it comes to comments involving a protected class, the law doesn’t focus on the intent of the speaker.

Rather it is how the words are received. If the “victim” is offended and a reasonable person in the victim’s shoes would be offended as well, then the speaker is out of line. Period.

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(And remember, even if the “victim” is not offended, the words could upset a co-worker who overhears the comment. That too is enough to create a problem).

But, while I do not agree with Richard Sherman that the proposed rule is “almost racist,” Sherman’s assessment, that a rule like the one proposed by the NFL doesn’t go far enough, resonates with me.

A hostile work environment?

The gridiron is a workplace, maybe not like any other workplace. But it’s a workplace nonetheless. In what workplace across America are words that are (or could reasonably be) construed as ethnic slurs be tolerated?

The NFL should be no different.

Whether it’s a 15-yard penalty, or some other punishment, I hope that the NFL takes reasonable steps to eradicate language and behavior that, in any workplace across America, could be reasonably viewed as creating a hostile work environment.

What do you think about the NFL’s proposed rule?

This was originally published on Eric B. Meyer’s blog, The Employer Handbook.

You know that scientist in the action movie who has all the right answers if only the government would just pay attention? Eric B. Meyer, Esq. gets companies HR-compliant before the action sequence. Serving clients nationwide, Eric is a Partner at FisherBroyles, LLP, which is the largest full-service, cloud-based law firm in the world, with approximately 210 attorneys in 21 offices nationwide. Eric is also a volunteer EEOC mediator, a paid private mediator, and publisher of The Employer Handbook (www.TheEmployerHandbook.com), which is pretty much the best employment law blog ever. That, and he's been quoted in the British tabloids. #Bucketlist.

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