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How sports shows can honestly tackle racial discourse

The recent indiscretions of Matt Barnes and Richie Incognito have opened the door (or really a can of worms) for the sports media to jump head first into a pretty complicated, complex, and difficult to navigate (safely) discussion of racial discourse.

Below are two clips on the subject, both of which I applaud. Leading off is Cris Collinsworth from this week's Inside The NFL. It's a long clip, one he put a lot of thought into which then transitions into a broader conversation with his colleagues.

The second clip is basically in total disagreement of Collinsworth's stance from Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA. Despite that, I also find it insightful and honest.

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Although there is little shared common ground here, I find them both as well as the segment on PTI on the subject valuable mainly because A) they were not hurried conversations and B) the thoughts conveyed were genuine and well articulated. 

Before Barkley's admission (if we want to call it that), I was getting somewhat perturbed by the smattering of rushed segments on the topic found across a handful of networks, shows, and spanning dozens of personalities. They were all the same.

Do YOU think it's okay to say the n word in the locker room/in social media/in general?

Sometimes with a clock ticking or a commercial break looming, the rounds are made across the television personalities on whatever show has decided to almost cowardly dip their toe into such an emotionally charged, potentially offensive, and yet still complex subject of the appropriate usage of any various slurs and racially charged language.

It's stupid. These conversations are essentially hollow. Some producer knows it's provocative, puts it on the list of things to yammer about, and then a fruitless conversation takes place in which one by one the personalties step up and boldly say the same things, many of which they don't believe or at the very least are firmly shaped with the knowledge that the safe PC reply will ruffle no feathers. They sound like this:

"The locker room is a workplace and you can't have that language in the workplace."

"That word's history is so tied to racism, that regardless of the context, who is saying it, and how it's pronounced, it should never be uttered."

"If it's offensive to one person than it's offensive."

That's not that these points aren't valid and I'd hate for someone who reads this to think I am actually endorsing the usage of any slurs.

My point is that you can't really express a novel thought on such a complex matter such as this where a segment is given 30 seconds, 60 seconds, or three minutes and needs to span often 2-6 panelists, analysts, reporters, writers, etc. 

What basically comes out of these conversations is A) nobody is racist or endorses racism or racist slurs on this program and B) said group of media professionals have now with 90 seconds of conversation come to a comprehensive societal rule on racial discourse that should be implemented and enforced throughout the world. You should thank them for coming to such a grand accord and should join the ranks in spreading the word that we've FINALLY figured out what we can and cannot say. Can they tackle peace talks in the Middle East next or perhaps help sort out the bullshit in Washington? 

That's why I really enjoyed Barkley's take, mainly because I know that certainly not everyone fully agrees with how these brief oral forays have played out. Barkley didn't get in the "yeah I'm not a racist, racism and slurs are bad. Eat your vegetables, hit the books, and don't do drugs" line that everyone else has gravitated to.

Ask a sample of 10,000 people on the appropriate usage of the N word, gay slurs, female slurs, other racial slurs, and you're not going to get 10,000 people agreeing in a carte blanche removal of these words from our collective vocabularies. We don't live in a vacuum. Different people, different communities, different settings, different usages of any slurs or generally obscene words, different contexts, etc, etc.

If people want to really talk to about it, it deserves some thought and a little more than 90 seconds with 20 seconds per person to talk about. It's an ongoing conversation. Words that are on television today would have never made it onto the air 15 years ago. Although controversial, South Park last year did a full episode on the usage of the word "fag" and how it should now be applied to motorcycle gangs. It was certainly provocative and comical, and I'm sure it got more people actually talking about the usage of the word than it did in terms of inciting backlash.

By the same token though, the flip side of an honest conversation is that you give your talent enough wiggle room and time on controversial subjects that they could end up like Chris Broussard or Rush Limbaugh.

While these controversies do highlight a disconnect in how we perceive and utilize certain words, it's not a topic that lends itself to only dipping your toe in with the sole intention of not getting wet, not making waves, and not causing a scene. The end result is dozens of non-controversial, cohesive, almost scripted PC responses that while reinforcing the most honorable position one could take, really avoids the reality of how Americans converse and robs us of a conversation rooted in differing opinions and perspectives as well as genuine thoughts on a matter that we are all long overdue for a real conversation about.

This is a rare example where the topic does deserve attention but most shows are not equipped, staffed, prepared, or gutsy enough to tackle in earnest. While I appreciate the departure from the normal chatter du jour, it's just not a neat and tidy conversation you can toss around a group and tie a bow on at the end of before nimbly moving on to the next shiny object. Thankfully, there are a few shows out there that were able to dig deep into this conversation and hopefully it elevated a difficult discourse to a better and more meaningful place.

Ben Koo

About Ben Koo

Copying and pasting my Twitter bio. I'm also refusing (for now) to write this in the third person. This is me - CEO of @Bloguin, GM at @AwfulAnnouncing, world's greatest chinese jew, proud Buckeye, funny dude, and sports and digital media zealot.

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