Twenty years ago, the head basketball coach at Central Michigan University stood in front of his players and asked permission to use a racial slur.
The players agreed to the request from their coach, who is white.
Keith Dambrot was trying to speak to the athletes with language they often used in the locker room among themselves, and he proceeded to call some of them the n-word. He didn't mean it in a derogatory sense, but in a motivational sense. An n-word in this context was a good thing, something to aspire to. It meant a hard worker, a fearless athlete. Dambrot called some of the players the n-word and other players half n-word; he wanted them all to rise to the same high level, which he labeled as the n-word.
"We need to be tougher, harder-nosed and play harder," Dambrot said. "We need to have more n- on the team."
The coach's message went over fine until it leaked throughout the campus that he had used one of the most heinous words in the English language. Dambrot was suspended. Players came to his defense, insisting that he meant it only in a good way – not a racist way.
It didn't matter; the coach was fired.
Two decades later, the same slur has been used in a different sports setting. Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito left a voicemail for teammate Jonathan Martin calling him a "half" n-word. That's a term Dambrot used in 1993. And Incognito, in an interview aired Sunday with Fox, used a rationalization similar to the one applied in the Central Michigan case. Incognito said he regretted using the term but it's "a product of our environment and that is something we use all the time."
It raises a question: Is it ever acceptable to use the n-word? Does the slur deserve context? After all, musicians and comedians drop the epithet often, and African-Americans have been using variations of the word for decades as a term of endearment.
"People don't know how Jon and I communicate with one another," Incognito told Fox. Incognito is white, but he's been called an "honorary" black by teammates according to a report, and many of them rushed to defend him just like the Central Michigan players did for Dambrot.
NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp said last week he wasn't deeply offended when Incognito called him an n-word on the field as an opponent. Off the field it would have been a different matter, Sapp insisted, but the heat of battle has its own standards.
Should some areas of the sports world be granted leeway when it comes to certain uses of the n-word? Is the word potentially complimentary or at least benign?
"It's an insult of a people," says Robert Newby, professor emeritus at Central Michigan, who was heavily involved in the Dambrot case. "They might have this private thing going on inside the locker room, but it's a word that should not be used. It's so egregious that it's just inappropriate."
Even on a private voicemail between teammates? Even when the head coach asks permission?
"When things are private, then it is private," Newby says. "When it ends up in the news, it's not private. Anytime people know about it – I'm insulted by it and I don't have anything to do with the Dolphins."
The debate over whether Incognito is racist misses the point somewhat. The word is racist, and it offends people who hear it. There's also a deep history of the word that's often forgotten (or never learned): it isn't just a rude term to describe people of color; it's demeaning and meant to establish (or reaffirm) that a person or group is on a lower level. The "half" modifier is actually lowering someone beyond how much the slur lowers them. The slur is, ironically, a form of bullying.
In an article written for "The Journal Of Blacks In Higher Education," Harvard professor Randall Kennedy explains that the n-word was originally a deliberate mispronouncing of the word "Negro." It was "a signal of contempt – much as individuals choose to insult others by deliberately mispronouncing their names." Kennedy quotes a 17th century author named Hosea Easton who wrote that in America, the n-word "flows from the fountain of purpose to injure." It is a verbal form of assault.
"One thing I was very surprised by was to hear black players defending Incognito," Newby says. "To have them defending it, wow. It doesn't speak very well for them. I know what goes on in a locker room. It shows a lack of sensitivity on their part."
Incognito told Fox, "in no way shape or form is it acceptable to use that word," and he insisted, "my actions were coming from a place of love." Dambrot's speech was also undoubtedly from a place of love. The problem is that the word is not from a place of love. It's from a place of hate. And that will always be the case, even if it's used in a place of sports.
Dambrot had a long road from Central Michigan to winning 2013 Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year honors at Akron. He spent five years out of coaching before finally getting a chance at the high school level. He found himself in his native Ohio, at the helm of a very good team – one that included a player who led his squad to two consecutive state titles and a national ranking. That player wanted to discuss the racial incident with Dambrot before playing for him. The student decided Dambrot was not a racist.
His name was LeBron James.
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