Kids sports: where dreams begin and parents can support and cheer no matter how good or bad the performance. They are, after all, out there having fun and trying to win games.
My stepson plays basketball for our City. Although reluctant and feeling uncomfortable at first, he has grown into a strong athlete and works incredibly hard at playing better each game. He conducts himself according to the coach’s instructions and has even made some friends – his teammates.
Last Friday, my husband and I sat proudly at his game, watching his undefeated team dominate another – on their way to a perfect season. We are proud of his efforts and sportsmanship.
Hmmm…sportsmanship. Let’s dive into what that word means. Its definition says: “…fair and generous behavior or treatment of others, especially in a sports contest.”
But I digress…but do I?
In this game where players are to practice sportsmanship, why did I have to listen to one of my son’s teammates – while sitting on the bench – turn to some of his friends spectating - use the word nigger? Out loud, in gest, for all to hear.
I froze for a second not sure if I wanted to make a complete scene and embarrass my son. You see, for me it could have been a teachable moment. The fact that I wanted to slap the word out of his mouth was my gut reaction. I looked around, and no one seemed bothered. I asked my husband – who is white – if he heard it and he put his head down in disgust and nodded yes.
So here I sat with the weight of hearing this word on my shoulders pondering what my next step would be: have him removed from the game; have him removed from the league; take him aside and give him a tongue lashing; or – what I decided to do – tell the coach. After all, as a coach, he should know what his players are doing/saying on game day. The coach, the leader and person in charge, is not just coaching players to be better athletes, but should be coaching them to be better people. Coaching them to have sportsmanship conduct at all times.
I picked up my phone and began typing an email to the coach:
Good evening Coach.
While sitting on the bench, one of your players used the word "nigger" while talking to his friends. I was so upset and offended I almost caused a scene. My husband heard it as well.
I could go to the league and report it but I’m hoping you would be able to speak with him. It’s not only racist, offensive but does not hold the standard of sportsmanlike conduct.
His jersey # is 12.
I appreciate it.
Although not entirely the way I wanted to respond, I did have to take my son’s feelings into consideration and not have him carry the burden of my anger while on the court or off. It would be a conversation I would have with him at home, so for the sake of him and the other players who have worked so hard to be undefeated this season, I acquiesced.
A day goes by. Finally late in the afternoon on the second day, I get this response from the coach:
Hello...I will definitely bring it up to him during the next practice. I didn't hear it or the context that it was used in but I can say just being around kids that unfortunately it is a word commonly used between them....not them as the team but kids in general....it's something that I've spoken to my son about as well...I've told him that is a word I never want to hear out of his mouth even if it's in a song he was singing...I do not want it repeated or hear him saying ....but it is a word that is used between some of the kids...if it was said in a negative manner or not I understand that it shouldn’t be used ever and especially in a public setting with other kids and parents around so I will definitely bring it to his attention...thank you for reaching out to me...have a good day
Wow. Let’s break this response down:
“…I didn't hear it or the context that it was used in but I can say just being around kids that unfortunately it is a word commonly used between them…”
What context did you need to hear it being used in to deem it racist and offensive? Are you kidding me? There is no context that makes the use of this word okay. There is no context that makes the use of this word appropriate. The context that you need to understand, Coach, is that no person, kid – particularly a player on game day - should be using this word – period.
And how about:
“…it's something that I've spoken to my son about as well...I've told him that is a word I never want to hear out of his mouth even if it's in a song he was singing…”
So now you’re suggesting that rappers who use the word in songs are partly responsible for its use among kids? I do not condone the use of the word in lyrics, movies, etc., but I know it is used. But to imply that the use of the word in a genre is giving license for the word to be used – a genre created and dominated by African Americans – is ignorant and offensive.
“…If it was said in a negative manner or not I understand that it shouldn’t be used ever and especially in a public setting with other kids and parents around so I will definitely bring it to his attention…”
What other manner is this word used? So if he was complimenting a young black kid and used the word – it’s okay? Like, “gee, that nigger can play ball!” Or if he was opining the legacy of Kobe Bryant – that would seem reasonable? Like, “man, it’s crazy how that nigger died.”
As for the coach, I am disgusted and offended by his response and now understand that the culture that exists is because people like him who do not take an opportunity to stand up and say it is wrong and that a player will be benched or kicked off the team. I am disgusted that the coach wouldn’t take the time to help the player understands that in no context – song or otherwise – will this word be appropriate to use. And although I commend the coach’s parenting of making his son understand the word is not to be uttered, I am offended of his implication that black rappers make it okay.
In life, there are millions of opportunities to ‘get it right.’ To take the opportunity to correct a wrong and possible change the trajectory in a person’s life is a road we must all travel.
I had that opportunity and I missed it. I failed to correct a wrong. I should have gone with my first instinct – particularly due to how offended and hurt I was to hear it coming from a 13-year-old kid. I let myself down.
The word nigger is racist. There is no context when it isn’t. The fact that it is used repetitively in rap songs, movies, and even some television shows doesn’t make it less so. Freedom of speech needs to come with a responsibility of understanding that it is a privilege, not a right, to practice it with the dignity by which the amendment was created.
Don’t hurt people with your words. If you hear something – say something. You may never have the opportunity for a teachable moment again.
As for the 13-year-old who used the word so freely, I pray that he doesn't say it in the wrong place at the wrong time. The response - unlike mine - may not be as gentle.