NBA legend and current TNT basketball commentator Charles Barkley and Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes are adamant they will continue to use the N-word in certain contexts, which complicates the boundaries of acceptable speech in sports.
Barkley made his comments on TNT in response to a since-deleted tweet of Barnes in which the Clippers veteran had lamented the hefty price tag of continually sticking up for teammates in chest-thrusting NBA skirmishes.
ESPN.com has a record of that tweet: "I love my teammates like family, but I'm DONE standing up for these n---as! All this s--- does is cost me money. …"
As Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times reports, Barnes later apologized for the tweet, but then clarified that he had used the offending term in the wrong context:
"Obviously the word I used is a word that's used on the court, is used in the locker room, is used by most of my friends and family," Barnes said. "It's a 'regular' word to me. I think my mistake was using it in a social manner, which I regret and I apologized for. You guys [in the media] have to get used to it.…This is a new day and age, and for my generation, that's a very common word."
As you can see in this video of his comments, Barkley offered a vigorous, if not always persuasive, defense of Barnes' use of the N-word.
The N-word is, of course, historically malignant since it is attached to a longstanding history of slavery and racist violence. It is no wonder then that some people want it swiftly removed from society.
ESPN commentator Skip Bayless recently made such an impassioned written plea on ESPN.com, albeit with caveats and qualifications about how he was just one "white guy" offering an opinion.
Still, it's also understandable why Barkley will not quietly acquiesce when he perceives that white people are setting the terms of the debate: "What I do with my black friends is not up to white America to dictate to me.”
After all, many African Americans, African immigrants to the U.S. and bi-racial people who have felt the sting of the slur, claim to have found a way to drain it of its venom by reframing it in new contexts; that is a linguistic remedy that at least demands attention.
It is also a move that has quite successful precedence.
"Queer" was once relegated to homophobic rants, but it now most commonly appears as an empowering term of self-identification by LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) people who have so thoroughly transformed its meaning that I can write "queer" here, rather than "the Q-word."
Still, not all words (or contexts) are created equal.
Like most proud uncles whose own basketball playing days ended when Steve Nash still had long hair and no fractures, my athletic hopes lie with my nephew, whose rapid growth as a six-month-old may auger future basketball stardom.
He is biracial.
I don't know how he or society will feel about the use of the N-word in athletic circles once (and, okay, if) he reaches basketball maturity, but it better not include the kind of racist venom that then-Dolphin Richie Incognito spewed when he called his teammate, Jonathan Martin, a "half N-word."
There will likely continue to be divided opinions among people of all racial categories about the use of the N-word. Jettisoning it altogether maybe the most fruitful objective.
But people who have been historically most vulnerable to its malicious use should get the final word on whether, or in what restricted context, the N-word is used.
Even in 2013, it is in the arena of sports where such potentially marginalized voices get the greatest hearing.