Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Or so we once thought.
America’s schoolyards were tough places to play in the old days, where kids settled their arguments with skinned knuckles, bloody noses and a minimum of grown-up interference. But that was when the well-prepared scholar arrived for the first day of school with a Big Chief tablet, a clutch of Eberhard Faber No. 2 pencils, a bag lunch (if he could avoid the lunchroom), and an apple for the teacher.
Now it’s against the law to bribe a teacher, an iPad mini has replaced the Big Chief and most important of all, every kid needs his lawyer.
If the kids could work out their differences, you might think that grown men — professionals all — who are paid in multiples of millions could do that, too. But the National Football League, and maybe the National Basketball Association, apparently think not.
The NFL wants to punish insult and vulgarity in locker rooms and on the field, particularly in that no man’s land between the defensive and offensive lines, where trash talk is as important as a well-placed elbow or a surreptitious slap upside the head. This is an admirable goal, and good luck to one and all. They’ll all need it.
This crusade started as a way to eliminate what is primly called “the n-word” in pointed and polite discussions of the word, but has quickly morphed into a crusade against “the f-word” as well, and it’s not “the f-word” you may think. People of culture, kindness and refinement never use “the n-word,” and if it can be stamped out popular rappers like Kanye West will be out of work. The rest of us will be better for it.
“The f-word,” on the other hand, does not refer to vigorous and unwanted romantic attention, as you might think, but to “fag” or “faggot.” The NFL is all aflutter just now, presenting its first “openly gay” player with all the pride and ceremony of a father offering his daughter to society at the debutante ball. Gays want to elevate (or lower) the words “fag” and “faggot” to the nether regions along with the n-word. Good riddance, we say, to both. The n-word is understood as ugly and an insult everywhere English (and American) is spoken.
“Fag” and “faggot,” not so much. Fags are cigarettes in many places, as indeed they were not so long ago on the fruited plain, and even “faggot” has several respectable meanings in the old country whence came our glorious language. In Scotland, “faggot” can be merely an innocent sausage, and one of the memorable posters in the London Underground once advertised a certain brand of “faggots, hot and juicy.” A “fag” was originally a woman, sayeth the authoritative dictionary of Slang and Euphemism (with oaths, curses, insults, racial slurs, homosexual lingo and related matters), a fascinating book of the New American Library. Now usage mostly doesn’t sayeth that, and those of good will reserve the use of “fag” to ordering breakfast in Aberdeen, Inverness and the Orkneys.
But there’s usually not a lot of good will on the defensive line during tense moments on Sunday afternoons in autumn in America. “I think it’s going to be really tough to legislate this rule, to find a way to penalize everyone who uses this rule,” says Ryan Clark, black, and a 12-year veteran at free safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “And it’s not going to be white players using it toward black players. Most of the time you hear it, it’s black players using it.”
Seventy percent of the players in the NFL are black, and by the math, most of the 15-yard penalties assessed for violation of the dirty-speech rule will be black. Beyond that, say some black players, the use of the n-word is cultural, and in friendly conversations between black players it isn’t always a slur spoken in anger. In the NBA, where nearly all the players are black, there’s even greater skepticism of how such a rule could be applied.
Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat thinks all slurs should be banned, though he concedes enforcing such a ban would be difficult. Spic, honky, greaser, kike, yazzihamper, cracker, peckerwood and hundreds other terms of contempt would keep the all the zebras busy. “Officials have a hard time now with pass interference and head slaps,” says one NFL coach, who pleads anonymity lest he, too, draw a 15-yard penalty.
The law can do a lot to regulate behavior, but the playing fields enforce their own rules. That’s where decency and good sportsmanship begins.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.