Sports

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.

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