The National Football League’s proposed “N”-word penalty: too far, or not far enough?

nfl.jpgIn 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.

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

Mr. 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.”

According to The MMQB, 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.

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.

(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 Mr. Sherman that the proposed rule is “almost racist,” Mr. Sherman’s assessment, that a rule like the one proposed by the NFL doesn’t go far enough, resonates with me.

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? Let me know in the comments below.