One hundred and fifty years ago, there was only one way to interpret the meaning of the n-word.
It was hateful. Spiteful. Awful. Disgusting.
But as time has moved forward its meaning, usage and cultural significance have changed like no other word in the English language.
Today it seems the word means many things to many different people.
To some, it is nothing but a hateful term that degrades the African American people and reminds them of the suffering of previous generations. And to others, the word is cool, chill and something of an endearment.
Michael Wilbon, co-host of ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” is one of the most prominent and well-regarded sports journalists of his generation. For aspiring sports journalists, he is a God in our small fraternity. When people ask me whom I most want to emulate in terms of success and professionalism, his name is the first one that comes to my mind. I respect his opinion, admire his work ethic and hope to have half the success he has enjoyed throughout his journalism career.
But when I learned that Wilbon disagrees with the NFL’s proposed rule change to penalize players who say the n-word on the football field, I was shocked.
“So you’re gonna have a league with no black owners and a white commissioner — middle-aged and advanced-aged white men — say to black players, mostly — because that’s what we’re talking about — ‘you can’t use the n-word on the field of play, or we’re gonna penalize you,’” Wilbon said on a recent episode of PTI. “I’ve got a massive problem with that.”
Wilbon’s argument may seem valid to some, but what’s wrong with trying to eradicate a word fueled with hate?
In college sports, one doesn’t have to travel far to know that the n-word is loud and clear for the world to hear.
Whether it’s blacks, whites, Hispanics, Indians or Asians, the word sits on the tongues of college athletes and students everywhere.
Last month, the Big 12 Conference suspended Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart for three games because he pushed a fan in the stands. It was later reported that Smart’s actions were a result of that fan yelling the profanity towards Smart.
Smart’s punishment, whether you agree with it or not, brings up a larger issue about the n-word in college sports.
We have a problem, but not just a sports problem. We have a cultural problem.
Where do we draw the line?
Is it right to penalize players who say the n-word on the court or on the field? Is it fair to criticize African American players who choose to say the word because they believe it has a different connotation than how it was once used?
Remember, it was less than 50 years ago that Texas Western University (now University of Texas-El Paso) made history by starting five black players in the National Championship Game against the University of Kentucky.
Texas Western coach Don Haskins realized that making a statement about racial equality was more important than winning basketball games. He didn’t see race as a barrier between good and bad players. He saw talent, and the rest of the world eventually saw that too.
Haskins’ team forever changed college sports, and now more than 60 percent of Division I basketball players are African American.
I have always wondered what those five black men would say about the state of the n-word today.
My hope is that those great men would all believe that the n-word has no place in college sports, and that we should continue to strive towards racial equality without the use of that shameful word.
As a white American, I may not have the authority or the complete understanding of the word. But regardless, there is no denying that evil is rooted behind the n-word. Every time someone uses the word on the field or in the locker room, it rebuilds the barrier that athletes like Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Bill Willis aspired to destroy long ago.
It doesn’t belong in college sports, and it doesn’t belong in our lives either.
The last time that I checked, college sports are supposed to bring us together. The last thing we should be doing is attempting to destroy our unity with a word that only tears us apart.