Workplace Lessons From the NFL’s Fight Against Racism

A nonprofit named for the first black coach in NFL history says efforts to ban use of a racial slur on the field are showing success. The potential rule change could provide an opportunity for other organizations to consider their diversity policies.

The National Football League has made great strides in recent years on diversity issues, with improved diversity among its coaching ranks and a team likely to sign the NFL’s first openly gay player soon.

Now, a proposed rule could mean dynamic change on the field, and the work of a watchdog nonprofit could help make it happen.

The Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, named for Frederick Douglass “Fritz” Pollard (the first black coach in NFL history), is a group focused on encouraging stronger diversity in the pro league. The organization says its push for a rule to ban “the N-word” from pro-football playing field is bearing fruit.

The group’s chairman, former NFL star and team executive John Wooten, said that in an owners meeting next month, a league committee could approve a proposed rule that would have players who use the slur on the field face first an automatic 15-yard penalty, and then ejection from the game. The goal, according to Wooten, is to encourage the league to reach a higher standard, and not just on the field.

“I will be totally shocked if the competition committee does not uphold us on what we’re trying to do,” Wooten told CBS Sports. “We want this word to be policed from the parking lot to the equipment room to the locker room. Secretaries, PR people, whoever, we want it eliminated completely and want it policed everywhere.”

NFL stars such as Adrian Peterson have noted the prevalence of racially charged language on the field and in locker rooms, an issue that came to light last season in connection with bullying allegations against Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito.

Fighting Workplace Racism

In an interview with Bloomberg BNA, the Society for Human Resource Management’s manager of diversity and inclusion, Eric Peterson, noted that signs of racism in the workplace might not be as overt as the language issues the NFL faces. More likely, “micro-aggressions” could play a role in flare-ups of racism in the office, he said. And in many cases, the role of race in a conflict is not clear cut.

“As a culture, and specifically in the profession of HR, we have to get beyond the assumption that there are good people and bad people,” he told the publication. “Almost all people fall somewhere in the middle, and often disparate treatment is not the result of hatred for other races, but of unintentional offense.”

Have you dealt with this kind of tension within your own workplace? What did you learn while working to alleviate it? Let us know your take in the comments.

Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson, shown, has claimed that racist language is common in NFL locker rooms. (photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images Sport)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!