NFL won't back down in penalizing, stamping out use of n-word

Eric Adelson

The NFL is not mincing words when it comes to the n-word.

During a Wednesday afternoon conference call hosted by competition committee chairman and Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, the topic of abusive language came up quickly during a question-and-answer session. The response was clear: the NFL will encourage its referees to enforce a rule already on the books that prohibits threatening language during games.

League Rule 12, Section 3, Article 1b, which describes unsportsmanlike conduct, includes verbiage that prohibits: "The use of abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials or representatives of the League."

That aspect of the conduct rule will be emphasized during the upcoming season.

"The n-word would fall under that category," said St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, who is on the competition committee. "Referees will be empowered to make those calls. It will be a very significant point of emphasis."

McKay followed up, saying steps will be taken during the offseason to "make sure to educate everyone how the rule will be enforced."

Although there will be no specific n-word rule, that doesn't mean the league is bluffing. Quite the opposite.

This topic gained traction during the 2013 season, but not so much because of on-field episodes. Rather, it was the bullying of Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin by teammate Richie Incognito and others in the Miami organization. The NFL hired renowned criminal attorney Ted Wells to prepare a report on the matter, which revealed heinous language directed at (and sometimes used by) Martin, who was recently traded to the San Francisco 49ers. The embarrassing revelations caused a league-wide soul-searching, although Fisher said Wednesday the language issue predated what happened in Miami.

"We've had discussions throughout," Fisher said, "with the coaches' committee, with players, and it is a significant point of emphasis this year. We're going beyond the field of play. We're going to the workplace."

Making the NFL a better "workplace" is growing more important to the league office, as it tries to make an often-barbaric game more professional on the field and in the locker room. The n-word is a special target, but the Wells Report also revealed alarming examples of misogyny, homophobia and racism against Asians. The league wants to snuff all of that out.

It goes even further, though. Fisher mentioned the dramatic rise in taunting penalties called on the field, from nine in 2012 to 34 last season. He hinted that the competition committee is monitoring whether respect for the game is declining.

Those who watch the game's standards are sending a message to players: watch your language.