Sports Columns

February 28, 2014

Tom Lindley: In rough NFL, cleaning up language will be a dirty job

As I walked the sidelines of a professional football game, my ears were filled with a barrage of profanity the likes of which I’d never heard. There’s no use repeating the language here because no newspaper in the country would print it.

It was a side of pro football I’d never experienced. We all know the game — tough, physical, even brutal. You can see that from anywhere in the stadium.

But the verbal exchange on the field can be vile, crude and gross. Does that reflect the nature of the sport or the extreme combativeness of its players? Probably both. I found it somewhere between funny and intimidating.

That sideline experience came to mind this week as I read about a proposal by the National Football League to crack down on profanity and slurs — especially the use of the N-word — next season. Consequences could be a 15-yard penalty, ejection from the game or maybe a fine.

The proposal is made all the more strange because there’s already something called Rule 12 on player conduct, which includes a section prohibiting unsportsmanlike conduct. It’s just not enforced — at least the part about cussing.

If you don’t take it from me, you can believe Dale Orem, who started working NFL games as an official in 1980 and continued until 2001. He spent the last few years reviewing disputed plays on TV monitors high above the field. Profanity and racial epithets have been in the game forever, he told me, while not defending the practice.

So why is the NFL all of a sudden focused on player protocol?

The answer is fairly obvious. The Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal — centered around Richie Incognito’s actions toward Jonathan Martin — shocked the NFL. Workplace harassment and intimidation are intolerable, especially within a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

Then came the announcement from Southeastern Conference defensive star Michael Sam that he is gay and hopes to be a high draft choice. His decision to jump out of the closet as he potentially enters an NFL locker room forced the league to be proactive.

The new rule is being pushed by the Fritz Pollard Alliance — a group formed to promote diversity in the NFL. Chairman John Wooten is confident that change is forthcoming. But from the perspective of the officiating crew, Orem said that might be more difficult to achieve — or at least enforce — than one would expect.

Orem, whose long NFL resumé includes Super Bowl and Pro Bowl assignments, said he would actually have to hear and see a player utter words in violation of the rules before tossing a flag. But at times it’s impossible to hear exactly what someone said, or to determine who said something you’ve heard. Stadiums do get loud.

Then again, how is an official to rule when hearing language that is deemed unacceptable by the league but that isn’t used maliciously? Orem said he’s heard instances of one player congratulating another on an outstanding play and using the N-word. What do officials do if the word is used by someone who is African-American, as two-thirds of the NFL’s players are?

How is an official to react to an argument like the one Orem witnessed in a Chicago Bears playoff game where Coach Mike Ditka and injured quarterback Jim McMahon got into a profanity-infused exchange about whether McMahon would reenter the game? There wasn’t a profane name they didn’t call each other, Orem recalled.

Further, enforcing the rule puts an extra burden on officials closest to the line of scrimmage, Orem said. Back judges, who see more one-on-one action, probably won’t catch as many flare-ups in which taunts ensue and fights break out.

To be enforceable, any rule must carry the full support of all 32 teams, including owners, general managers and coaches.

Even if that happens, Orem believes change won’t come easily.

“I think it is going to be difficult,” he said.

Pro football is a game where players always look for an advantage — if not by bone-crushing tackle then by verbal intimidation.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. You can write to him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

1
Text Only
Sports Columns
  • Larry Case: Camping a sure cure for the big city blues

    In case you haven’t noticed, we are looking right down the gun barrel at winding down on another summer.

    July 25, 2014

  • Chris Whitfield's Fairways & Greens: Nob North prepares for 'big date'

    Like anyone getting ready for a big date, golf courses get dressed up when it is time for a major event. But while a woman may put on a little makeup and a man may add a spray of cologne, Nob North Golf Course in Varnell is getting something more akin to Botox.

    July 24, 2014

  • 7on7 day 2 '14 17 mlh.jpg Devin Golden: Friday signals gridiron days’ official start

    Seven-on-seven football was a good placeholder, but it’s time to begin talking about the real thing.

    July 21, 2014 1 Photo

  • Loran Smith: Golf now in era of McIlroy after Open

    Royal & Ancient officials, under whose auspices the Open championship is conducted each year, were blessed with a sun-kissed start of the final round of the 143rd playing of this historic event.

    July 21, 2014

  • Loran Smith: McIlroy at his peak at Hoylake

    HOYLAKE, England — It’s the setting which enraptures those who appreciate the things that accompany a championship, The British refuse to let a downpour or two, intermittent and inconvenient, to make them fret.

    July 20, 2014

  • Loran Smith: Change is needed for major titles

    HOYLAKE, England — This is a good time to be Bubba Watson — long off the tee which brings golf aficionados through the gates, two Masters titles which puts him in the pantheon of the greats at Augusta, deal-makers hovering about, more perks than a palace prince, exempt status to the end of the decade and a cash flow that resembles a raging river.

    July 19, 2014

  • Loran Smith: Harman is living his childhood golf dream

    HOYLAKE, England — One thing about golf that has remained constant since Young Tom Morris won his fourth Open in a row in 1872 — when Ulysses Grant was president of the United States and Brigham Young was arrested for bigamy (he had 25 wives) — is that a little man can play the game.
    Football players are becoming bigger — often illegally — and basketball players are growing taller, but a golfer can excel at any dimension if he hones his skills enough to get the ball in the hole in the fewest strokes. Golf is not a behemoth sport; there are no concussions, no strikeouts and no fistfights. Let the game prosper.

    July 18, 2014

  • Loran Smith: Brits know how to hold classy affairs

    HOYLAKE, England — Summertime is a royal time for the British, who have more sporting options in a six-week period than some societies have in a lifetime.
    If you think the U.S. is keen on sport — with the NBA finals lasting into June and baseball and golf dominating the scene — consider what takes place in the land of our forebears. Wimbledon gets underway the last week in June for a fortnight of resonating excitement. Wimbledon is like Augusta National or Churchill Downs — a memorable experience regardless of who walks away with first prize.

    July 15, 2014

  • A Look Ahead: State golf coming to Nob North

    My history as a golfer can be summed up with some well-known words from 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes — “nasty, brutish and short.”

    July 14, 2014

  • CharlesTodd.jpg Devin Golden: Todd leaving a legacy of success

    To many, Charles Todd is known as “coach Todd.” Some of the divers, swimmers and water polo players who have been on his teams in the Dalton area over the years shorten that to simply “coach.”

    July 11, 2014 1 Photo