Penalty flags are a major theme every NFL Sunday, no matter what week or month of the season it is. Officials throw them; players campaign for them; coaches yell about them (and toss a few themselves); fans complain about them; the league defends them. Every weekend, it’s part of the football dance. While every flag doesn’t warrant explanation, Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee opened up about his unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against the Raiders. He admitted he got caught using the N-word. “In the midst of the game, emotion is going from both teams. It just so happened the ref heard me, so therefore I got the flag. I’ve got to fess up to it.”
Lee claimed he heard the N-word from Oakland players, that they were jawing back and forth the whole time. His may be the only flag for language we’ve heard about, but it’s definitely not an isolated incident. In the heat of the moment, in a game full of violent, high-speed collisions, with all of its fury, intensity and emotion, trash talk will happen. Obnoxious and objectionable words will be used — words that may be inappropriate in mixed company, around young children and in a business setting. Except the football field isn’t an office, and the NFL isn’t your garden-variety corporate atmosphere. Should the NFL (or the NBA, NHL, MLB or any other pro sports league) police the language used during games?
In 2014, the NFL placed an emphasis on curbing abusive or offensive language during games. The rule wasn’t new, but officials were instructed to crack down when players or coaches used “abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures to opponents, teammates, officials, or representatives of the league.” Where referees might have shown leniency and issued warnings in the past, they were told to follow the NFL handbook to the letter and throw flags for unsportsmanlike conduct. And how do officials define offensive and abusive? It’s left up to their own discretion and judgment, which makes the issue even more complicated. Speech that offends Jane or Joe may not offend June or Jerry. Words carry different meanings, connotations and impact across genders, cultures, races and generations.
The NFL and other sports leagues want to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Football, hockey and basketball aren’t just for man caves anymore. They want their product to be friendly and attractive for families, women, non-traditional fans, TV networks and advertisers. They want to cultivate new devotees around the U.S. and across the globe. To do that, the leagues have to adjust to a shifting social climate and beware of potential pitfalls. Racial slurs and gay slurs caught on video, broadcast over the airwaves or heard in person at games WILL offend people and create PR nightmares. When a TV camera isolated Kobe Bryant directing a homosexual slur at a ref in 2011 and advocacy groups reacted, the NBA was quick to label the word “inexcusable” and fine Kobe $100,000. Point guard Rajon Rondo served a one-game suspension last winter for using the same slur to berate a referee.
In last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw was hit with a one-game suspension and ordered to sensitivity training when he used gay slurs as part of an on-ice tirade. The video of Shaw’s outburst went viral; and the NHL was immediately contacted by members of You Can Play, an organization that promotes inclusion in sports, regardless of sexual orientation. Since NHL teams and players have spent the last several years partnering with You Can Play, the Shaw incident was a major embarrassment.
To protect their corporate images and reputations, the NHL, NBA, NFL and others must monitor the language used by their athletes and coaches. In this social media age of total access, they need to err on the side of caution. Cameras and microphones are everywhere, trying to put viewers and listeners in the center of the action. The access adds to the drama and excitement, but when offensive or abusive language is recorded or broadcast, there’s no stopping the flood of reaction and backlash. Football may be entertainment to the fans, but it’s big business to the leagues and their owners. Corporate responsibility is part of their reality.
The responsibility doesn’t end with the bottom line either. In 2016, we’re seeing more and more pro athletes use their platforms to advocate for social change or call attention to social injustices. The NFL, NBA and others must be cognizant of their high profile and massive reach. People are always watching and listening; kids and teens are imitating. One former NFL MVP expressed it to me this way: while players want to have social consciousness, they also need to exercise social decency. He said his league needs to stay professional, even in the heat of the moment, that there’s no place for the N-word or other offensive language. He said it made him and his teammates uncomfortable if it happened repeatedly on the field, that he and other veterans would police their own sidelines if it crossed the line.
We live in the United States of America where free speech is our right. But freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. The NFL can’t lose sight of that.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.