The Two “N-Words” in Sports


Twitter: @Li495Akiem

Nov 7, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Fans Laura Miller (left) and Maura Sullivan (right) hold up a sign relating to Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito (not pictured) during the third quarter between the Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. The Vikings defeated the Redskins 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

Throughout the course of this NFL season, we’ve already had two instances where players have put themselves on the back pages due to use of a well known racial epithet.

Earlier this year, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was caught on tape at a Kenny Chesney concert at Lincoln Financial Field in which he was observed bellowing in the crowd, “I’ll fight every n—er in here!”

Cooper experienced a temporary firestorm throughout the NFL (which is 75 percent black) the Philadelphia area (which has a substantial African American population) and in the court of public opinion. For the most part, that has since subsided, except maybe among a still sizable section of fans.

Recently, the realm of sport was rocked when Miami Dolphins safety Richie Incognito was said to be engaging in bullying of rookie teammate Jonathan Martin. One aspect of this is where Incognito coerces Martin into paying for a trip to Las Vegas for Incognito and other party-going teammates. Also, he’s said to leave voice messages in which he, a white individual, is saying the same n-word in Martin’s direction, along with some other less-than flattering remarks.

This has spread to the NBA as well. Matt Barnes of the Los Angeles Clippers who was involved (and ejected from the game) in an on-court altercation with the Oklahoma City Thunder, tweeted afterwards that he loved his teammates “like family”, but was “tired of defending these n—as!” Barnes was fined $25,000 for the on-court stuff in addition to that tweet, which he has since deleted.

The NBA, of course, is the second majority-black sport in North America outside of the NFL. Both of the NFL’s recent incidents involving the n-word had to be unearthed out of the ground because of being caught on tape or through voice messages.

But, what really is the n-word’s place in sports if there is one? Also, why does it seem to be that there are almost two n-words (n—er and n—a) amongst the black community?

Of course, the n-word with the “er” at the end is always seen to be a derogatory and racist term directed at African Americans. That is obvious. The real issue of the debate is with the n-word with the “a” at the end is either the same thing or a term of endearment as some have proclaimed.

After all, the concept of the word with the “a” at the end is not even born without the one with the “er” at the end. In fact, it’s not the only word that has seen the “a” take place of the “er”. It is simply the most controversial.

It is probably one of a few words that can be seen as both a term of endearment as well as a major, racial no-no. Being a young African American constantly exposed to other African Americans my age, the “N bomb” (as some call it) is thrown around regularly in everyday conversation as if it were nothing. I would also estimate about 95 to 99 percent of the time that the version young black people are using is the one with the “a” at the end (five letters).

Meanwhile, you still have a sloth of racially motivated people (many of them white) who see successful black people on TV or in the media (LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Gabby Douglas, etc.) and will scream, “Why are they showing all these n—ers on my television screens!” and promptly break their TVs when throwing their right shoes into their tubes.

Good look getting someone to pay for the new TVs, by the way.

Of course, it is easy to point the finger at commercial hip-hop music for a huge portion of this problem, as ESPN’s Jason Whitlock did in a recent column discussing the Dolphins debacle involving Incognito and Martin. Black (for the most part) rappers are the stars while still at the mercy of white-owned record labels. Trying to find a rapper who doesn’t regularly use the n-word in their lyrics is like searching for a four-leaf clover in a sea of three-leafed ones.

Again, the version used by hip-hop is the one with the “a” at the end. In fact, Eminem once rapped about being “some wigga who tries to be black” in one of his older songs, “The Way I Am”. “Wigga”, meaning “white n—a”—someone white who tries to dress “black” (whatever in the blue that means)….

The connection to sport is especially obvious given that many athletes are friends with many hip-hop artists. In fact, it is said that rap music is the “music of sports”, particularly the soundtrack to the NBA and NFL which are dominated by…young African American males in their twenties and thirties. When sport is mentioned in mainstream rap lyrics, it is normally a reference to either the basketball court or the football gridiron.

It is also likely that the word with the “a” at the end is still widely used even amongst most players when the cameras are off. Listening to hip-hop music does not automatically make someone racially ignorant and to say such a thing would be an unfair stereotype. Just as it is an unfair stereotype to say people who listen to country music are “rednecks” who live amongst more cows than people.

But, people do not change what words that they use in their daily lexicon when the cameras are off and the Twitter account is not being used just because they have a little more fame and fortune than they did prior to the glitz and glamour of sport.

If someone was using the “n-word” with the “a” at the end in casual conversation in their high school and college days, then it is likely still the case in their later twenties or thirties.

It is interesting, of course, that many of the same African Americans who get offended when they hear a white person use the term with the “er” at the end regularly listen to rappers or comedians throw out the term with the “a” at the end for either lyrical or comedic effect.

This is where the “er” stuff comes in. Using the n word with the “er” version at the end is undoubtedly racist and there is no getting around it. However, with the cases of Riley Cooper and Richie Incognito in mind, one other outspoken former athlete also rings a bell.

And he did not play in either the NBA or the NFL.

John Rocker was a closer for many years with the Atlanta Braves. Throughout the course of his career, he said a plethora of racially insensitive comments, and is probably still doing so to this day. Rocker came as close as any white player could have ever came to using the “n word” with the “er” at the end without actually doing it.

Cooper and Incognito are nowhere near John Rocker in terms of racial insensitivity. Really, could you imagine Rocker with a radio show? The thought alone makes me cringe at night.

And considering Rocker recently became an internet columnist, a radio show cannot be too far behind.

The point here is that there is little debate about the use of the “n-word” with the “er” at the end. Most people know that it is racially insensitive. But what about the version with the “a” at the end that has been embraced by large swaths of the African American population as well as by hip hop culture?

As mentioned earlier, there is no “n—a” without “n—er” and this fact is not lost among many in the black community that have constantly chastised “gangsta rap” for this. But, it is possible that the version of the word with the “a” at the end is widely used in sport, especially if they started using it when they were younger. Again, money changes a person’s lifestyle, not a person’s mouth.

On TNT’s Inside the NBA, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, and Shaquille O’Neal were discussing the Barnes tweet. Chuck confessed himself to using the n-word with his “black friends” and his “white friends”. Barkley also said that reporters don’t have the courage to go into sports locker rooms (referencing the Incognito-Martin story) and that what is said in a locker room amongst teammates is sometimes homophobic, sexist, or racist.

He was essentially confirming that he did use such language when he was a player in the late 80s and early 90s and, once again, reinforced the idea that language (like the n-word) is possibly on overdrive in sports locker rooms. Barkley even suggested that Barnes’ tweet was directed at Blake Griffin more than anything else.

Shaq agreed with Charles’ take on the n-word and said he uses it too.

I’m in the same category as they are. I only sparingly use the n-word, but I have friends who use it more often than I do and I don’t get offended when I hear it because I understand that they’re not trying to put me down. We’re just having a good time amongst ourselves. But, I also know that given the nature of a conversation and the context that it’s being used that not the version of the word with the “a” at the end is always a term of endearment.

Michael Wilbon mentioned a similar stance on ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. Like Chuck and Shaq, he also confessed to regular use of the n-word, but also said Barnes shouldn’t have used the word publicly.

Tony Kornheiser suggested that NBA Commissioner David Stern, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig (both of whom are outgoing, “lame duck” commissioners, by the way), and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should mandate that the word not be used at all by its respective personnel. Wilbon said if that were to happen that the commissioners would be acting like “plantation owners” by telling black people how to use a word that was forced on them.

This conversation about the use of the n-word is also interesting in regards to the NFL. Cooper and Incognito got flack for using the n-word with the “er” at the end and not as terms of endearment. This is occurring at the exact same time that an increasing number of fans, media types, and organizations are zeroing in on another controversial word.


If anything, these organizations feel that “Redskins” is just as derogatory to Native Americans as the n-word with the “er” at the end is to African Americans. Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, has said repeatedly that Redskins is used as the nickname for his team as a term of endearment to Native Americans. He has no plans to change their team’s name. Of course, Snyder’s comments are likely to be motivated more by financial causes than anything else.

Commissioner Roger Goodell has had conversations with Snyder about the name and has even hinted at possibly being open to a name change in the future.

Once again, the media has missed the mark. With all of the talk about racial slurs used by players, there should, perhaps, be more talk about racial slurs used as team names by owners and commissioners. Personally, if the Redskins (or the Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Chiefs, Atlanta Braves, Florida Seminoles, Illinois Fighting Illini, etc.) do change their name, they will. And if they don’t, then they don’t. No team name is going to be liked by everyone. There may be some people on South Florida or North Carolina that are offended by “Hurricanes”.

But on the issue of the n-word, it is fascinating. The version with the “er” is outright racist and the version with the “a” can possibly be looked at more. But going back to the issue of sports locker rooms as well as that of youth culture (particularly in African American communities) that it may be the norm instead of the exception to the norm. That will not change anytime soon, but the debate will certainly evolve in the future as more stories like this come about.

Newsflash: John Rocker still uses actual racial slurs and still acts as if he lost a girlfriend on the New York City subway. He should be thanking me for even mentioning his name.