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Legislating Language: Will the NFL Ban the N-Word?

One current All-Pro calls the idea ‘atrocious.’ But one Hall of Famer argues it's dishonorable for today’s players to use the word. The NFL is now stuck in the middle as it considers passing a rule to penalize those who use it on the field

We seem to have a disagreement about Johnny Manziel, and the salary cap has exploded in a good way, and Brandin Cooks is trying to elbow his way up in the first round, and free agency is only eight days away, and the Eagles have done a bunch of good business.

But first, about that n-word …

The NFL Competition Committee has been meeting in Florida since Friday, and one of the items the eight men are debating is whether it should be a penalty if a player on the field uses the n-word. I am hearing it is unlikely a rule will be passed this year penalizing a player for using the n-word for the first time in a game. Three outcomes are possible:

1. The Competition Committee will urge that it be a point of emphasis for officials this year. When officials hear it, they would admonish players about it and do nothing else.

2. The committee will urge that offending players be warned if the word is used on the field during games. After a warning, a player with a second use could be penalized for using it, at the discretion of the officiating crew. I say “could be,” because the league could give officiating crews the option of throwing a flag, depending on the circumstances.

3. Nothing will change. Players will be allowed to use the word at will.

I believe a combination of numbers one and two is most likely. There is already a rule on the books that would allow an official to throw a flag for taunting and/or excessive foul language. But understand that the eight-man Competition Committee is not a legislative body. It recommends new rules, and owners vote on them. So we won’t know anything about the outcome of the debate till the owners’ meetings in Orlando beginning March 23.

"[Banning the n-word] is an atrocious idea," Richard Sherman said. "It's almost racist, to me. Why wouldn't all curse words be banned then."

Over the weekend, I communicated with three African-American players about it. Two of them were opposed to the word being banned. A third thought it was a good idea but would be hard to police.

“It’s an atrocious idea,” said Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman. “It’s almost racist, to me. It’s weird they’re targeting one specific word. Why wouldn’t all curse words be banned then?”

“It’s a common word in so many players’ everyday lives,” said Tennessee cornerback Jason McCourty. “Among African-American players and people, it’s used among friends all the time. It seems like a bit much for the NFL to try to get rid of it. It’s a pretty common word in the locker room, like ‘man,’ ‘bro,’ ‘nigga.’ But once a white person says it, it’s a derogatory term.”

Richard Sherman says he hears the n-word in every game he plays. (Rod Mar/SI/The MMQB)

Richard Sherman says he hears the n-word in every game he plays. (Rod Mar/SI/The MMQB)

Sherman emphasized that the n-word ending in “-er” is racist, but the n-word ending in “-a” is not, when used among African-American players.

“It’s in the locker room and on the field at all times,” Sherman said. “I hear it almost every series out there on the field."

Free agent linebacker D’Qwell Jackson said, “Ultimately, if the NFL can get it done, it’s great for our game. But I think refs have a hard enough time officiating the game now. Now they’d be asked to police language?”

One reliable league source told me the biggest problem he saw is that very often during scrums, name-calling and foul language are exchanged by a group of players. What happens if an official thinks he heard the n-word from one player and it actually was another? The referee could call the unsportsmanlike conduct penalty/language foul, and if the offending player is white, it’s going to scar him for his career. What if the call is made on the wrong player?

It’s a very difficult issue, obviously. In the Seattle SeahawksSuper Bowl-winning locker room, explicit rap songs, several using the n-word repeatedly, blared out from a boom box at Marshawn Lynch’s locker. Some players seem stunned that it’s an issue at all. But it’s been made one by the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the equality-advocacy group focused mostly on coaching and front-office job opportunities in the NFL. The Fritz Pollard Alliance has been loudly advocating the ban of the n-word this off-season. This is where the generation gap between the hierarchy of the Pollard organ—chairman John Wooten, 77, and executive director Harry Carson, 60—and many current players comes into the picture.

Carson grew up in South Carolina, and he was derisively called the n-word as a child by white people. He felt discriminated against. There is no kidding around with the word, no “-a” instead of “-er” that makes the word different to the Hall of Fame linebacker.

Harry Carson played 13 seasons for the Giants from 1976-88 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. (Mike Powell/Getty Images)

Harry Carson played 13 seasons for the Giants from 1976-88 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006. (Mike Powell/Getty Images)

“I find it very disheartening that in our society today we’re having a debate about the n-words being used as a term of endearment," Carson said on Sunday. “If that’s a term of endearment, go up to your grandfather, or an elderly black person, and use it on them. See how they react. For those who use it, I say they have no sense of history.”

Last week, I was at the Pro Football Hall of Fame doing some research. It’s known in pro football circles that the Cleveland Browns had black players in pro football (Marion Motley and Bill Willis) before the Dodgers had the first black player in major league baseball (Jackie Robinson). Motley and Willis played for the Browns beginning in 1946, Robinson a year later with the Dodgers. But I was surprised to learn Cleveland coach Paul Brown was forced to leave Motley and Willis behind for a road trip to Miami on Dec. 3, 1946. The local segregation laws forbade black players from being on the field with whites then.

Willis made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Carson was enshrined, too, in 2006, 21 months before Willis died. They became friends, and had conversations about what Willis went through to become a pro football player at a time of racial strife in America.

“For someone who uses the n-word," said Carson, “it dishonors Bill Willis, and it dishonors the sacrifices he and others have made for others in the future. I find it disheartening players can justify using the word in any form today, in 2014."

So now you see the layout of the issues. It’s an incredibly sensitive topic, which makes the Competition Committee’s job impossible. No matter what the committee, led by Falcons president Rich McKay and Rams coach Jeff Fisher,  recommends, it will face ire from one of two sides: football traditionalists and respected veterans who see it as an issue of dignity, or many modern players who see it as an infringement of free speech.

Standing tall in the pocket is something NFL teams will want Johnny Manziel to prove he can do at the next level. (Darren Carroll/SI)

Standing tall in the pocket is something NFL teams will want Johnny Manziel to prove he can do at the next level. (Darren Carroll/SI)

The game is changing, which is why Johnny Manziel has a chance to win.

Last week, former quarterbacks and current tape students Ron Jaworski and Phil Simms both came out as skeptics of Johnny Manziel. I liked it. If you’re an analyst and don’t voice your real opinion, what good are you? And there is much work to be done by the teams in the top eight that need a quarterback (Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Oakland, Minnesota and maybe Tampa Bay). Last week, Manziel’s quarterback coach, George Whitfield, said they are focusing on Manziel's throwing and decision-making from the pocket as they prepare for his pro-day workout on March 27. Manziel was such a wild stallion as a quarterback at Texas A&M, often leaving the pocket early instead of staying home. But it is folly to say he hasn’t played well at times in the pocket; some of his best plays—though maybe not always with good footwork—came with traffic around him, and Manziel finding the receiver he needed to find. But Whitfield knows you don’t want to neuter all of his instincts and you don’t want him exposed to the number of hits he faced in college either.

The people I spoke with at the combine who have an interest in drafting a quarterback want to see Manziel play better when hemmed in, as he was against LSU last year. I find it interesting that Nick Saban didn’t emphasize keeping Manziel inside the tackle box (or if he did, it just didn’t work) the way LSU coach Les Miles did. Check out how Manziel did in his two meetings against LSU and Alabama. Saban, I would argue, is the biggest test for a quarterback in college football, given his track record on the pro and college levels.



Comp-Att, Pct.







45-97, .464







52-70, .743





“I understand he’s not for all 32 teams," said Phil Savage, the color man on Alabama radio broadcasts, executive director of the Senior Bowl and former NFL GM with the Browns. “But he’s so instinctive, such a playmaker and such a smart football player that I think there have to be a few teams that think, We can shape our offense around him and use his skills for what he does best. We can win with him.”

My guess, two-plus months out from the draft: Jacksonville, at number three, or Oakland, at five, make the most sense. If I’m Jags offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, who is one of the most imaginative young coaches in the game, I’d love to get my hands on Manziel.

* * *

The cap doubles in 14 years.

The salary cap has doubled in this century, and it has virtually quadrupled in its 20-year history. Some figures to know since the salary cap’s inception in 1994:


Cap number per team



$34.6 million

26 percent of the current cap


$62.2 million

Less than one-half of today’s cap


$85.5 million

Year before Gene Upshaw’s last deal


$102.0 million

Jump in Upshaw’s first year of last CBA


$123.0 million

Last capped year of previous deal



Led to Washington, Dallas sanctions


$123.0 million

Flat with 2009; pressure on NFLPA for a raise


$133.0 million

8.2% hike in line with burgeoning revenues

Collectively, teams have more than $700 million to spend when free agency begins a week from Tuesday. If I were a GM, I’d try to spend internally, the way the Eagles did last Thursday and Friday, signing four key offensive players to new deals, and eliminating the need to go outside the building for important positions like left tackle (Jason Peters, one of the best in the league, got re-signed) when there’s usually a reason why players are on the market in the first place. The two best left tackles out there now, Brandon Albert and Eugene Monroe, are coming off so-so and good years, respectively, but with tackle-needy teams like Miami and Arizona out there with cap room to spare, one or both is likely to get overpaid.

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As I wrote about last week, NFL teams are going to have to spend the money on somebody, inside or outside the organization. Teams are mandated to spend a combined 95% of the salary cap on players in the 2013 through 2016 seasons; each team must spend, minimum, 89% of the cap money available or face a stiff penalty in 2017. “If the league-wide spend in those four seasons is not at least 95 percent,’’ said George Atallah, the assistant executive director for external affairs of the NFL Players Association, “the NFLPA can disburse that unspent money how it wants.’’ Similarly, any team not at an 89% spending rate between 2013 and 2016 will have to fork over what it is shy, and the NFLPA can distribute it to the affected players who were on the team during that period.

Point is, teams now will be forced to spend to the minimums required by the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. That’s a good thing. And with the cap projected to increase by at least $10 million more in 2015, this should be a good time for players who thought they were being held back by a relatively flat cap to make up for lost time.

Who could strike it rich? Three projections:

1. Cleveland center Alex Mack (either with the Browns or elsewhere), a sturdy 28-year-old line leader and solid run blocker, should average $8 million a year, minimum.

2. Miami defensive tackle Paul Soliai, 30 years old but relatively lightly used in his career, is the best run-stuffer on the market and should command at least $6 million a year.

3. Tennessee cornerback Alterraun Verner, who just turned 25 and had his best season with the Titans. Cover corners and rushers will be the most lucrative positions on the market, and Tennessee, going against Andrew Luck and new quarterbacks due in Jacksonville and Houston, needs to do everything it can to keep Verner.

* * *

Player of the Week: Brandin Cooks, wide receiver/returner, Oregon State

Brandin Cooks' 128 catches ranked second in the NCAA FBS in 2013. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Brandin Cooks' 128 catches ranked second in the NCAA FBS in 2013.(Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Between now and the May 8 NFL draft, I plan to take a look at a different player in the news each week. This week it’s one of the stars of the NFL Scouting Combine, wide receiver Brandin Cooks of Oregon State.

I watched the Oregon State offensive snaps of three of his 2013 games—against Cal, Stanford and USC. It was the TV copy, and the wide receivers were out of the picture quite often, so I couldn’t get a good picture of him blocking downfield (though he did block aggressively in a scrum against Stanford for a fellow receiver). And I can’t say I am confident about his route-running either, for a similar reason. But I got a good feel for his physicality competing for balls and his hands and his speed around the edge. All very good. I didn’t see the blow-the-top-off-the-defense speed I thought I’d see after his 4.33 40-time at the combine, but he clearly is plenty fast. Oregon State uses him on the Jet sweeps the way Seattle used Percy Harvin when healthy in 2013; he didn’t break many, but you don’t sneer at 6.8 yards per play on the sweeps.

Cooks reminded me of the West Virginia all-purpose weapon, Tavon Austin, who was the only rusher/receiver picked in the top half of the first round of the 2013 draft. Cooks, I believe, is slightly more physical. Comparing Austin and Cooks and the final seasons of their college careers:


40 time







Overall Draft Pick












5-9 ¾






The most impressive play I saw Cooks make came against Stanford. From the Cardinal 8-yard line, quarterback Sean Mannion looked for Cooks running a short post on the right side. Cooks caught it around the 4 and hurtled toward the end zone, with three Stanford defenders in the way. Cooks dove under safety Ed Reynolds, his main foe near the goal line, while defensive tackle David Parry and linebacker A.J. Tarpley tried to squeeze him from getting in for the score. Cooks barely made it. The physicality of the play was impressive; Cooks knew he’d get clobbered, but he went for it nonetheless—and he won.

But there are other assets. I saw two high leaps where he came down for the ball fighting a defensive back. He is a very good boundary receiver, with good awareness of the sideline and end line, and good ability to get his feet down when he looks to be completely concentrating on the ball. And he’s a plucker of the ball; his hands dart out, grab the ball softly and bring it in.

“I’m a playmaker,” Cooks said at the combine. “I’m able to create plays from nothing—able to catch a three-yard ball, take it the distance. Speed kills, and I feel like that’s what I’m going to bring to the game.”

This is a terrific receiver class—Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Marqise Lee are the more highly regarded and bigger receivers, and fast-riser Odell Beckham is another high-pick contender. The quantity and quality will likely push Cooks down to the second half of the first round; there’s a slight chance he’d fall to the second round, but with wideout-needy teams late in the first round (New England, Baltimore, Cleveland, Carolina, San Francisco), it’s highly unlikely he’ll make it out. Seeing as they have a huge need for a playmaker, the Jets, at 18, would be a great landing spot for Cooks.

Quotes of the Week


“I’ve always said I’d never recruit a white quarterback. The only way I’d ever recruit a white quarterback to play for me was if his Mom and Daddy would have to both be black, and that’s the only way I would do it.”

—Barry Switzer, to WNSR radio in Nashville.

Two points:

1. Barry Switzer is getting more and more like Dennis Rodman every day.

2. Troy Aikman will be surprised to know he has two African-American parents.


“Russell Wilson is more explosive. He’s naturally bigger and stronger than Johnny Manziel. They’re not even close in arm strength."

—Phil Simms, to Adam Schein of SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Radio.

Not even close? Simms is a scientist of the position, and he has watched 1,000 hours of tape for every one I have watched. But did he see the Manziel strike, while off-balance, that traveled 44 yards in the air to Mike Evans against Alabama? Or the one that went 53 yards in the air downfield, also a strike, against Arkansas?

I suppose Wilson would win a throwing contest against Manziel. But it would be close.


“One source with inside knowledge of the team says that Harbaugh’s act has worn thin in the locker room, particularly among some key ‘face of the 49ers’ type players.”

—Ann Killion, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, writing Sunday about the continuing melodrama that is Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers.

Just another brick in the wall of why I say the over/under on Harbaugh’s tenure with the team is one more season.


“We lost a feather from the Oriole today. Monica embodied everything we strive to be about. Her passion, loyalty, and tenacity set a great example for everyone in the organization. She was so courageous in continuing to do her job the last few years despite her pain. This is an especially tough day for those of us that worked with her on a daily basis. It was a blessing to have her in my life; she made our jobs so much easier. We won’t be able to replace Monica, we will only try to carry on. I am going to miss her as a colleague and a friend.”

—Orioles manager Buck Showalter on Friday, a day after Baltimore director of public relations Monica Barlow, 36 and a non-smoker, died of lung cancer. Barlow became a fighter and fund-raiser for the battle against lung cancer through the non-profit LUNGevity (

Stats of the Week


Comparing the Eagles’ Dream Team (Vince Young’s words, not mine) acquisitions of 2011 to the signings of their own last week:

2011: 20 years, $124 million

Players: CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DLs Jason Babin and Cullen Jenkins, QB Vince Young, RB Ronnie Brown, G Evan Mathis and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (trade).

2014: 17 years, $113.8 million

Players: WRs Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, C Jason Kelce, T Jason Peters.

Now we know Andy Reid was never crazy about Asomugha, and Rodgers-Cromartie had two poor seasons before jumping to Denver in 2013. Babin was superb in 2011, with 18 sacks, but the Eagles waived him in ’12 when he was unproductive. Young never did a thing, and Brown was just a backup cog. Mathis was the gem of the class; he’s turned into one of the best guards in the NFL, and the Eagles rewarded him with a new contract before the 2012 season.

Regarding this year’s crop: Nick Foles bonded with Cooper, and when Cooper was willing to eschew free agency for $4.5 million a year, the Eagles jumped. They bought a year with Maclin, signing him for 2014 while seeing if he recovers from ACL surgery and resumes being an upper-echelon player. Kelce and Peters are among the best at their positions in football.

So, the Eagles, with an estimated $21 million in cap room, should be able to address their needs and get their own players re-signed in the early days of free agency. If I were GM Howie Roseman, I’d be watching tape of Titans corner Alterraun Verner.


Sydney Moss, the daughter of former great wideout Randy Moss, is an NCAA Division III basketball player for Thomas More (Ky.) College. On Friday night she set a Divison III women’s record for points in a game, with 63. The stat line for Moss, who missed her first three shots of the night in Crestview Hills, Ky., in a 106-88 victory over Waynesburg (Pa.):


3 pt FG-FGA

















Six steals too. Not bad.

Thomas More is 29-0. Moss has led the Saints in scoring in the last 23 games of the season.

Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me

The Phillies’ Triple-A team in eastern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, have an alternate cap this year that they plan to wear on Saturdays. It has a slice of bacon on the front of it.


Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week

Not a travel note, really, but a slice-of-non-green-life note from New York City:

I observed The Seven-Towel Man on Saturday at my gym in Manhattan, while on parallel schedules with the man. Three towels for the steam room—one to wrap around his waist, one as a cape around his shoulder, one to hold in his hands to wipe his brow. After a short steam, he deposited the three towels in the hamper. He took two for the shower—one to dry himself and one as a mat for the floor when he left the shower. He dropped those in the hamper. The Seven-Towel-Man then took two for post-showering, and I did not see what he did with those.

One man, 25 minutes, seven towels. Life is plush.

Tweets of the Week


“Jennifer Lawrence is so charming that she could run me over with her car and I’d send her a thank you note.”

—@BetteMidler, from the Oscars Sunday night.


“I'm beginning to feel the Gravity of the situation.”

—@neiltyson, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, as "Gravity" was cleaning up at the Oscars Sunday night.


“Let me sum up next 2.5 hours: "You look fabulous, who are you wearing? What a year for you! What would a win mean? Best of luck ! #redcarpet”

—@wingoz, Trey Wingo of ESPN, Tweeting as the pre-game shows started Sunday night before the Oscars.


“Woman just dropped her scarf in hotel lobby. ‘Excuse me. You dropped this,’ says man, leaning down to give her scarf. The man? Allen Iverson”

—@MrMichaelLee, Michael Lee, Wizards beat man for the Washington Post, on Saturday in Philadelphia, where Allen Iverson had his number retired by the Sixers that evening.


“First time I've seen CC Sabathia this spring. There's so much less of him, they should change his name to just ‘C’ "

—@jaysonst, columnist Jayson Stark, Saturday from spring training. Sabathia, the Yankees pitcher, has lost more than a few pounds.

The kinship between Joe Flacco and Dennis Pitta is one of the reasons why it was smart for the Ravens to lock up the tight end before he hit the open market. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The kinship between Joe Flacco and Dennis Pitta is one of the reasons why it was smart for the Ravens to lock up the tight end before he hit the open market. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Ten Things I Think I Think

1. I think the Ravens’ deal for tight end Dennis Pitta (five years, $32 million, at age 28) was smart and will pay great dividends. Two reasons: Pitta is the perfect complement to a strong outside passing game for Joe Flacco, a smart and sure-handed receiver who knows how to get open in small spaces. And Flacco and Pitta are best pals. For Pitta to count as about 4% of the cap over the next three or four years is very good value for the Ravens.

2. I think there’s no way I’m giving up two first-round picks and $12 million a year for a tight end, particularly one I’m not sure is going to be great consistently against physical defenses. That’s not a knock on Jimmy Graham. But two ones and 9% of your cap? Nope. Really good player. Not worth that.

3. I think now that De Smith has told the current player reps he’d like to stay on the job as executive director of the NFLPA for as long as they want him, the question is, Who will be the next generation of player leaders, and will they want Smith to continue when his current term expires in March 2015? There will be a new president and as many as seven of 10 new Executive Board members elected later this month, and the usual changeover in the player reps will help determine Smith’s future.

4. I think a De Smith-Sean Gilbert battle would be interesting, if only for this issue: Smith is adamantly opposed to an 18-game schedule, and Gilbert’s on record saying he’d be willing to give the owners 18 games in the regular season in exchange for a three-year path to free agency.

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5. I think I cannot see a majority of players agreeing with Gilbert. I just can’t.

6. I think if I’m guessing where Jairus Byrd lands—assuming he’s not tagged by the Bills—I’m guessing Tampa Bay. His dad, Gil Byrd, is an assistant coach in the secondary for the Bucs. Not many instances of father coaching son in NFL history.

7. I think we all want to know: Jerry Jones, what were you doing at the Oscars last night?

8. I think if Peyton Manning flunks his 2014 physical—Jeff Legwold of reports the exam will happen today—I will eat this laptop. The Broncos are not about to let that happen.

9. I think the biggest sign that Greg Schiano will someday work with Bill Belichick in New England, and the most interesting personnel result from the last week, is this: New England could start three Rutgers Scarlet Knights in the secondary this fall: free safety Devin McCourty (round one, 2010), strong safety Duron Harmon (round three, 2013) and cornerback Logan Ryan (round three, 2013).

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Lupita Nyong’o. Awesome.

b. Nyong’o: “No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.”

c. Great job, P!nk.

d. Great job, U2.

e. But you, Bette Midler, you are still amazing. What a voice, what a song.

f. RIP, Harold Ramis. Groundhog Day is in my all-time top 20.

g. Who can forget this line from the Ramis classic, from the long-lost and forgotten insurance man, Ned Ryerson: “Ned! Ryerson! Needle-Nose Ned! Ned the Head! Ned Ryerson! Come on buddy! Case Western High! I did the whistling belly-button trick at the high school talent show! Bing! Ned Ryerson. Got the shingles real bad senior year, almost didn’t graduate! Bing, again! Ned Ryerson, I dated your sister Mary Pat a couple times till you told me not to anymore. Well?" Just watch it.

h. The look Bill Murray gives Ned … one of the greatest in Murray history.

i. Wow. What a putt by Paula Creamer.

j. If this is it for Martin Brodeur in New Jersey after nearly a quarter-century as the goaltender of the Devils (1991-2014), and I hope it is not (the NHL trading deadline is Wednesday, and Brodeur is a clear number two in goal now for the Devils), it should be noted that Brodeur has 132 more wins in goal than any goalie ever, and 21 more shutouts than any goalie ever. All for Jersey.

k. Beernerdness: Thanks to my friends at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and especially Joe Horrigan, for taking us out to a place that served Great Lakes Brewing's Burning River Pale Ale. Fresh and with a good bite, this ale reminded me of the San Diego pale ale, Ballast Point. Both have a touch of pine. This is my favorite of the Great Lakes beers.

The Adieu Haiku

Commercials. Which has

more—Oscars or Super Bowl?

Brick through the TV.