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NFL will curb on-field slurs, with one notable exception

The NFL is working to end all on-field slurs and hateful language -- but it decided not to act against the use of the word "redskin."

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX -- "Respect for the game" was the theme of the NFL's league meetings last year. That included a redoubled effort to crack down on taunting and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, with an eye toward curbing the use of slurs among players on the field.

A year later, league officials acknowledged that they still have work to do in the area.

Cleaning up the language on the field was fueled by two events in Feb. 2014. First, Michael Sam came out publicly as gay, which led to questions about how he would be treated by his fellow players in the NFL. Later that month, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, the non-profit organization that works closely with the NFL on diversity issues, suggested a potential rule change that would level a 15-yard penalty for players caught using the N-word on the field.

The NFL competition committee decided against implementing a specific penalty for slurs or abusive language used by players on the field. Racial or homophobic insults were already covered by the unsportsmanlike conduct rule, which results in a 15-yard penalty for players or coaches caught using "any abusive, threatening or insulting language."

Instead, the NFL instructed officials to more aggressively target players or coaches overheard using slurs, epithets, etc. League officials gave referees, players and coaches a refresher course during offseason workouts about what kinds of words were unacceptable.

"Those who play the sport, who manage the sport or officiate the sport know," NFL executive VP of football operations Troy Vincent told SB Nation at the league's 2014 annual meetings. "Something that's condescending, disgraceful or just hatred, those words, we can easily determine what those are."

The result was an increase in the number of unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, going from 59 incidents in 2013 to 67 incidents last season, including the postseason games.

"Penalties were up," competition committee co-chair and Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay acknowledged. "It was a point of emphasis, so it went up."

"We feel it was outstanding effort," Fritz Pollard Alliance chairman John Wooten said. Wooten said they saw a difference compared to how those situations were handled in the past, but noted that there was progress to be made. "We were informed that there was six penalties for the N word. We want zero. No reason for it not to be."

However, the league is still struggling with which words constitute a violation of the rule.

One word that would "probably not" draw a foul under the current circumstances, according to competition committee co-chair and Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, is the term "redskin."

That word also happens to be the official nickname of the Washington NFL team and the target of a national campaign led by Native Americans to force the league and the team's owner, Dan Snyder, to change it.

Opponents of the nickname include the President of the United States and the Fritz Pollard Alliance, among others.

"I really do not think that is an issue," Wooten said when asked about players using the term on the field. "If it became an issue as the other language had, I think it would be looked at. I think the Competition Committee is very much in touch with what is going on."

It's hard to find specific numbers for how many NFL players can claim Native American descent. The most recent report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport broke down the diversity rates among players in 2013 into five categories: white, African-American, Latino, Asian and other. They listed 14 players in the "other" category, less than one percent.

There aren't many Native American players in the league, so the word "redskin" probably doesn't get tossed around on the field as much as other epithets.

The NFL says it will continue its crackdown on the kind of language that constitutes unsportsmanlike conduct. So far, the effort does appear to have cut down on the use of certain epithets and similarly offensive language, but the vagueness of the rule opens to the door for future problems and continues the NFL's troubling comfort level with an ugly racial slur.

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