My first reaction to the news that Coach Gruden used racist remarks in an email in 2011 was amazement. He had worked for years in the diverse NFL culture. My second reaction was wonderment. Why did a prominent newspaper make an issue of one ten-year old email? I learned a few days later that there were many emails with racist, homophobic, and misogynistic comments in them. We are judged by our words.

Several days after hearing about Coach Gruden’s resignation, I stood at a San Diego hotel elevator with a young couple. The man wore a Raiders cap. I brought up the Gruden fiasco. The man replied that it was one email and ten years old. He had not kept up with the news that there were more emails.

Before I go any further, let me confess that fifty-nine years ago I used the N-word in a note to my next-door neighbor white friend. We were ten years old and lived on Shaw Air Force Base outside of Sumter, South Carolina. I dug into my limited vocabulary to call him that word. Segregation was in full force. Somewhere and from someone I learned the N-word. My parents never used it in my presence that I can recall. They didn’t treat people that way, but I did that day.

My friend’s mother came to our house that night with the note in hand to forcibly express her great displeasure to my mother and me about my use of the word. I chose to never use the word again. Based on this experience, I am left with the impression that no one ever confronted Coach Gruden with his choice of words for people. Why didn’t anyone do that after reading his derogatory remarks in one of his emails?

Profane and crude language permeate our sports culture. I know this as an athlete, volunteer coach, viewer of sports events and movies, and as a sports chaplain. The sports world uses these words when angry and frustrated, provoked, and disappointed. These words are used to motivate, embarrass, or shame an athlete, coach, or referee. Racist, homophobic, and misogynist remarks are demeaning stereotypes. I wonder what athletes, coaches, owners, and support staff will learn from the Gruden incident. What will I learn from it?

We learn not put to our derogatory remarks in writing. I chatted with a member of a men’s Bible study about the Gruden incident. He reminded me of the old adage to never put anything incriminating in writing. Writing or typing our crude, rude, and unacceptable language in a note, letter, email, or tweet leaves a trail of evidence to convict us. Our words will judge us when they are discovered and made public.

Words that come out of our mouths are windows to our hearts. We are guilty of dehumanizing attitudes about people. These attitudes surface when we are angry with, dislike, or disagree with people. This is not new. Two thousand years ago, Jesus told his audience, “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts…. malice…. slander.”[1] The implication of this truth is that we an interior transformation. We must address our invisible thought life. My friend Gary Thompson said that our thoughts are like seeds. If we cultivate them, they become written or spoken words. How do we clean up our thought life?

We admit our poor judgment and attitude. We don’t make excuses. We apologize. We implement a tangible accountability plan to help us re-train our thinking and communication. We might pay an amount of money that has a ‘bite’ to it to a non-profit every time we use a demeaning or crude word. We also commit to accepting rebuke about the words we use or the demeaning attitude we communicate. We can make King David’s prayer to God our own, “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.”[2]

Looking back to 1962, I thank God that my neighbor spoke to my mother and me. Her confrontation helped me make the decision to eliminate the N-word from my vocabulary. This experience reminds me to guard my heart and to be more responsible about the words I use because we are judged by our words.[3]

 

[1] Mark 7:20-22 NIV. ‘Unclean’ refers to a ceremonial uncleanness in Jewish culture.

[2] Psalm 19:14 NIV.

[3] Matthew 12:37 NIV.

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