The NBA and the N-word

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The NBA recently suspended Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver for a year and fined him $10 million after an investigation found he engaged in what the league called “workplace misconduct and organizational deficiencies.”

The findings of the league’s report, published on September 13th, came nearly a year after the NBA asked a law firm to investigate allegations that Sarver had a history of engaging in racist, sexist, homophobic and other sorts of deplorable behavior over his nearly two-decade tenure overseeing the franchise.

For his part, Sarver appeared to acknowledge his odious behavior by apologizing for his comments.

“I am sorry for causing this pain, and these errors in judgment are not consistent with my personal philosophy or my values,” Sarver said in a statement. “This moment is an opportunity for me to demonstrate a capacity to learn and grow as we continue to build a working culture where every employee feels comfortable and valued.”

It’s the usual default response of most racists, misogynists, homophobes, anti-Semites, xenophobes and other bigots when their reprehensible conduct is exposed.

While he appeared to be an equal opportunity offender, the report revealed that Sarver “repeated or purported to repeat the N-word on at least five occasions spanning his tenure with the Suns,” though it added that the investigation “makes no finding that Sarver used this racially insensitive language with the intent to demean or denigrate.”

Huh? Really?

Sarver is hardly the only non-Black person to have spouted the N-word in the public sphere. Who can forget comedian Michael Richards’ vile and crude rant in 2006?

Richards, who played Kramer on “Seinfeld,” hurled his racist diatribe at a group of twenty-somethings whom he felt were overly loud and disrespectful to him during a stand-up comedy routine. Regardless if that’s true or not, Richards’ response was the epitome of racial hostility and disrespect. Paula Deen, Ted Nugent, NASCAR driver Kyle Larson and country music singer Morgan Wallen are a few of the celebrities who have allowed the word to flow from their wayward mouths.

What’s disingenuous and disturbing is many people posted feverishly protective defenses of Sarver online, including questioning why it was okay for Black people to use the N-word but not people of other ethnic groups. As can be imagined, the usual comments and whataboutisms were plastered online and social media, including:

– The word is used in rap and hip hop songs.

– What about Black people who call one another that word all the time?

– Look at all the Black comedians who use it in their stand-up routines!

– What about all the Black athletes who say the word?

And on and on and on.

While there may be some degree of truth to such responses, it doesn’t create any justifiable reason for and non-Black person to use the word. The N-word is a racially-loaded term that was aggressively and maliciously weaponized by white people in a sinister effort to psychologically malign and dehumanize Black people. There is nothing positive or redeeming in its use as it relates to people of color.

That being said, within the Black community, the word is more nuanced and varied. Thus, debate regarding the term is ongoing. The all-Black jury is still out, so to speak.

Even more disturbing is that some, primarily white people, are so adamant in their unhinged efforts to make perverse justifications for using the word. My question and response is, really? Why would you even want to use the word? Is it a free speech issue?

Men can say all sorts of derogatory words about women without the same perverse justifications for doing so. The same goes for the use of other racially demeaning terms used to verbally assault and insult other ethnic groups.

About the only time I think it’s justified for a white person to use the term is while quoting a piece of literature or reading an article where the word is used. Although just saying “the N-word” might be a better option. Otherwise, it is a word that should not be pursed on their lips or coming out of their mouths. Period.

Can a non-Black person be prohibited from using the word? Of course not. But arguing so fiercely in defense of having the right to use such a vile term leads to obvious questions of racism and intent. In those cases, I doubt the main reason for taking such an ardent stance is free speech, but rather, speech of another variation. Which says a lot about that person.

Copyright 2022 Elwood Watson, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.