Applause is in order as the NFL seeks to eradicate the N-word from the playing field. But it's hard to muster more than a golf clap, because too much could go wrong with this.

At the moment, it's just a proposal. But the Fritz Pollard Alliance -- which monitors diversity in the league -- believes the NFL competition committee will adopt a policy penalizing teams 15 yards when players use the N-word on the field.

The sentiment is laudable, the gesture appreciated. The initiative the NFL is taking, even though a minor step in the name of progress, is a worthy notion. Because it is high time this derogatory term is plucked from the mouth of normality.

All usages. As a term of endearment. As an expression of anger and venom. As a label for a lower class of being. As a synonym for black person. As emphatic punctuation. All of it needs to go.

It doesn't matter which letters are at the end of the word, an -er or an -a. That whole argument is bogus. It doesn't matter if I'm talking smack about your mother, or your momma, I better be ready to duck.

This problem won't be fixed 15 yards at a time anyway. And the NFL's new policy only addresses the end result, not the core issue that birthed it.

Self-improvement is most effective through education, not legislation. If the real goal is better citizenship among the athlete population, if the NFL is aiming for awareness and compassion among its employee base, an unsportsmanlike penalty won't work. As part of a holistic plan, perhaps. But as a shot of linguistic penicillin, not so much.


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Since 99 percent of the N-word usage on the field will come from the 70 percent of the players who are African-American, a holistic approach is in order. That begins with educating young people, with lifting their consciousness and improving their historical context. Respect and maturity is learned, not imposed, and this task demands an approach similar to the NFL's activity on concussions.

"I think it's going to be really tough to legislate this rule, to find a way to penalize everyone who uses this word," Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said, according to ESPN.com. "And it's not going to be white players using it toward black players. Most of the time you hear it, it's black players using the word."

Of course, this might not be the NFL's motivation for change. Considering that this is the same league that not only allows but also supports the Washington team using the R-word as its nickname, it wouldn't be a shock if the motives are PR-related. And if that's the case, a 15-yard penalty won't work, either. Just as it hasn't stopped players from roughing passers or yanking face masks.

If the NFL wants to really stop players from dropping N-bombs on the field, game officials should keep a tally of the offenders. For every time they hear the word -- or any derogatory term -- somebody loses $10,000.

Imagine that bill.

Imagine, too, a close game, right down to the wire, fourth-and-1 in the red zone. A stop by the defense will win the game. But -- no! -- the offense gets new life and an automatic first down because the ref heard a player use the N-word while instructing his teammate.

That's what stands to happen. Because for many, the use of the word is habitual, embedded in their vernacular. A utility word with so many connotations and caveats, shutting it off cold turkey is not a realistic option. And it's unacceptable for a team to lose a game because the linebacker listens to too much Lil Wayne.

There's another layer, though, that makes this proposal hard to get behind, and even harder to explain. There's something inherently wrong about a major corporation, which in many ways is a symbol of white America, imposing this kind of penalty.

Racial slurs are unacceptable, no matter who spews them. But most uses of the N-word are a cultural byproduct. In essence, the NFL would be penalizing players for cultural expressions, albeit a negative one. That ventures uncomfortably close to condemning a segment of players for who they are and where they are as people.

In that vein, Herm Edwards, an ESPN analyst and former player and coach, is right on the money: the players need to decide to kill the word. Because although the NFL did not create the N-word, this new policy feels like the oppressor penalizing the oppressed for behaviors born of oppression.

Contact Marcus Thompson II at mthomps2@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ThompsonScribe.