A high school football coach once called to report that he’d visited a TCU practice and found it a wholly unedifying experience. His complaints concerned the head coach’s colorful language and confrontational, even conflagrational, style. This didn’t make headlines with yours truly. Watching Gary Patterson at work, you don’t have to be a lip reader to know you’re not cruising Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood.
Just the same, as combustible as Patterson can be, no one, to my knowledge, had accused him of being racist. Not until Monday, anyway, when Twitter blew up over his use of the N-word. And not just once but twice.
And if that’s all you knew of what actually happened, not only would the lack of context represent most of what passes for communication on social media, it does a disservice to all of us, not just the TCU coach.
In a statement Tuesday, Patterson apologized for the full, flagrant expression of the N-word instead of the euphemism. Called it “unacceptable.” Said he’d met with the team’s leadership council Monday night and had come to understand the error of his 60-year-old ways.
And how, exactly, did he employ maybe the most incendiary word in the English language?
While telling one of his players not to use it, then using it again later to explain that he didn’t call anyone any such thing.
In case you missed it, it apparently all started when Patterson sidled up to one of his linebackers, Dylan Jordan, during Sunday drills and poked fun at Jordan’s social media post about his girlfriend. Jordan, already unhappy about his playing status, told Patterson he didn’t appreciate the subject coming up in front of his teammates.
Next thing you know, Patterson calls Jordan a “(expletive) brat” and threatens to send him home to Kansas. But the head coach doesn’t let it end there. He calls out Jordan for using the N-word, committing the same sin in the process and providing Jordan fodder for a personal record in retweets.
Reaction to the story was divided fairly evenly. A few current and former players were outraged that Patterson would use the word no matter the circumstances. A few complained it was taken out of context. Fortunately for Patterson, anyway, his boss, TCU chancellor Victor Boschini, cast his lot with the latter. In an email to TCU student media, Boschini cited Patterson for calling it “a teachable moment for him and many others.”
Here’s the lesson for any coach anywhere: Don’t say it, don’t spell it, don’t text it, don’t so much as think it. Frankly, if it were up to me, the word would be stricken from our collective vocabulary. No one would use it. Not rappers, not poets, not friends among friends. Because it only complicates and escalates the racial problems we still face six decades after the ‘60s supposedly awakened an entire generation. Apparently some of us nodded off in our dotage. We attempt logic like, “If it’s OK for you, how come it’s not OK for me?” And off we go, down the rabbit hole.
What Patterson or any white person in a position of authority must remember is that it’s safest not to use the N-word for any reason, especially around young Black men.
Once past the teaching moment, though, it’s instructive to consider what’s being accomplished if, in the words of John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University, “the word is sinful even when referred to.” Writing a year ago for The Atlantic under the headline, “The Idea That Whites Can’t Refer to the N-Word,” McWhorter, who is Black, questioned the notion:
“The air of grim aggrievement exhibits a certain superficial brand of gravity. Ultimately, though, it proposes a cry of weakness as strength: The properly black position is supposed to be, “If you even utter this word to refer to it, even in doing so to criticize it, you have gravely injured me.” And white allies look on and commit themselves to decrying the supposedly wounding act. But I wonder how many black people, if given a bit of pause to examine that proposition, can truly say that they see this as a sign of a healthy racial self-image?”
McWhorter went on to write that when whites employ this “hypersensitivity” as “a way of showing that they are good people, they make me feel exploited.”
Of course, McWhorter’s position, even if less than a year old, is probably a little too nuanced for times as inflammatory as these. Risking any reference to the N-word is like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, assuming such circumstances ever present themselves again. Until further notice, better simply to play it safe. For that matter, Gary, quit provoking your kids, even in jest. You’re not good at sarcasm. Stick to yelling. That, they’re used to.
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