Commentary: Why Is ESPN Focusing Its TV Cameras on the N-Word Now?

The "World Wide Leader in Sports" is tardy in addressing an epithet that carries the historical baggage of hatred.

Posted: 02/21/2014 06:35 PM EST
Filed Under Sports News, ESPN, N-Word

Some of us should dispute the value of ESPN’s decision to address the “n-word” head on in an Outside the Lines special the sports/entertainment giant plans to air Sunday night.

For the n-word is polarizing, so much so that it led my good friend and ESPN personality Jemele Hill to pick the word as her “Person of the Year.”

But the question for ESPN is this: Why now?

Why now, when all the public’s attention is focused on homosexuality and its role in American society and in sports? Why now, when the network ignored last year one of the most salient stories of the times when it backed out of a partnership with PBS' Frontline on a documentary about concussions called League of Denial.

Why now, when the network didn’t step into the n-word discussion in 2012-13 after Quentin Tarantino littered Django Unchained, one of the director’s shoot-em-up Westerns, with it? Why now, when college athletes are marshaling their resources to get a fair share of the billions the NCAA is raking in off the sweat of their labor?

For much of America’s history, the word has stood for the vilest things about life in this country. It’s a reminder of slavery and its dehumanization of a people, their culture and their history. As much as Black people have tried to distance themselves from slavery, they can’t shake the one word that defined the period more than any other.

While Black comics like Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor and Chris Rock had, at one time or another in their performing lives, used the word liberally, they were never able to dust off the historical baggage that came with it. Deep down inside each of them, they knew it hurt more than it made people laugh.

Even the rappers, the hardcore rappers whose exploitive lyrics are so tasteless, so obscene that the n-word seemed tame, can’t polish the n-word up and make it respectable in polite company.

It is the yoke that Black folks wear with them, a bloody badge of dishonor that tells more about our past than about where we are as a people today. To talk about it is to quarrel in public about a word that cuts deeply into a Black man’s self-worth. A Black man is less of what he could be when he looks at that word and sees it benign.

Yet Black men do. ESPN will bring together folks who disagree on whether the n-word is part of America’s yesteryear, harmless in the way the term “displaced person” is now harmless. 

Guests like rapper Common, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Briana Scurry, Joe Green, columnist Jason Whitlock and professor Richard Lapchick won’t tell people anything that they don’t already know or feel. Either a person doesn’t see the damage of the n-word or he does.

That’s what hurts most for those who are critics of the word’s use in a broad sense. They can’t grasp its innocence any more than other nationalities and races can grasp words that demean them and their heritage.

We know all of that, though. We know which side of the n-word we stand on, and nothing ESPN and its roundtable of talkers will tell us will change the fact that those like me detest the most recognized racial epithet on the planet for what it tells us about our ancestors. Through that six-letter slur, they are always viewed as lesser people; we are too when we allow that word to be stripped of its historical meaning.

For no one can call the n-word a term of endearment, not Paula Deen or even ESPN as it tries to put a nice Technicolor gloss on it.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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Follow Justice B. Hill on Twitter: @jbernardh

(Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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