It offended me. I was raised not to say that. It made me angry and sad. I didn't think anyone would do that. I was just raised not to say it. Ever since I was little, I've known it was like a swear word. —Isaiah Smith
LINDON — Tamu Smith could tell something was wrong with her son Isaiah.
"I saw his demeanor change," she said. "The way he plays basketball changed."
She tried to get the attention of her 12-year-old son at halftime, but the bleachers for parents were too far from the court. She watched as the boys talked to the officials and both Bantam League coaches.
"I just had a feeling something had happened," she said.
What happened was an exchange that occurs in sporting events, at schools and on playgrounds all too often. A player on the opposing team had used the N-word in reference to Isaiah's team and the fact that they were fouling them.
Isaiah was in tears as he related the story to his mother after the game.
"It offended me," he said. "I was raised not to say that. It made me angry and sad. I didn't think anyone would do that. I was just raised not to say it. Ever since I was little, I've known it was like a swear word."
Smith immediately questioned the coaches and officials as to why something wasn't done to deal with the situation during the game.
"It's a form of bullying," she said. "I wanted to know why no adult protected my son and the other boys."
No adult had heard the boy use offensive language, so they were uncertain how to handle it. Adults argued about the incident, so Smith took her son home but was determined to address the issue.
Her conversations with coaches led her to Josh Kallunki, who runs the Utah County AAU Bantam League for local high school coaches. At first, she was angry, and he was unsure how to proceed. He took two days off work and talked to everyone involved and everyone he trusted.
The boy who'd said the offensive words said he didn't mean to offend. He was using the term, as many young people do, as slang to address his buddies. Some felt the issue wasn't as serious because the boy who used the term is also black. Smith said she is not comforted that the boy who said the word is the same race as her son.
"That doesn't make it any less degrading," she said. "Especially when you come from a home where that language is wrong."
So the high school coaches affiliated with the schools in question and Kallunki decided to do something a little different. The boy would receive a punishment for using offensive language, which included an apology, but the entire league would be invited to a seminar on sportsmanship and the use of offensive language.
That seminar was held Thursday night at Karl G. Maeser Preparatory Academy in Lindon, and it featured the Rev. France Davis, pastor of Calvary Baptist and a longtime professor at the University of Utah.
Davis used his experiences and ability to teach in parables to illustrate why using the slur in any context, among any group, is inappropriate.
"It is a serious issue, and it can't be swept under the rug," he told the group in the school's gymnasium.
The problem many coaches and teachers face is that rap music, movies and comedians use the word liberally, mostly by changing the "er" on the end to an "a." Teens tell coaches it is a term of endearment and slang that young people of many races use. The one exception is that it is still generally unacceptable for whites to use it, even as a joke with friends.
Davis said he sees teens using it more frequently, and gets calls to speak on the origins of the word and why it's unacceptable to use.
"It doesn't make any difference," he said of the adaptations Hollywood has made to the word. "They're both negative, and they both have connotations that make them not appropriate to use in any setting. … There are no acceptable uses of that particular word in conversations."
The Deseret News called about a dozen high school basketball and football coaches, all of whom confirmed they hear young people using the term with their friends. Most of the time, the teens defend their use of the word by telling coaches and teachers, most of whom are white, that it is a cultural thing." Several coaches admitted it makes them reluctant to punish students in those cases.
But most of the coaches contacted agreed with Davis that it cannot be tolerated and should be punished.
"It's a demeaning thing," said Bobby Porter, Layton Christian's head boys basketball coach. "I hear it, and it's used to try and get in people's heads. It's not a good thing to say. When it's used, it's used to give a person a hard time. Even by rappers, it's not used as a term of endearment." Kearns head football coach Bill Cosper said most of the kids using the term are just repeating slang they hear elsewhere.
"It's just straight copycat stuff," he said.
"It's different in the South than it is here," he said. "A lot of times, (the modern use) causes a rift with the older generation. They totally despise the word.
"My kids know that's one word I don't allow," he said. "They need to think about it. It's a derogatory word, and it doesn't need to be used." When he hears Polynesian or Hispanic teens using it, he questions them.
"I say, 'You guys aren't even African-American culture,' " he said. "You all say it because you hear it on MTV. … They say it, but they don't understand the meaning or the ramifications."
Ed Lloyd is an assistant football coach at Highland High and said he appreciates that head coach Brody Benson won't allow its use.
"It's inappropriate in any setting," Lloyd said. "Some say we've evolved, that we want to make it less hurtful than it was 300 years ago. The question is can we? No. It hurts every time."
He's listened to the argument that musicians, comedians and actors have changed the spelling to change what the word means, but he contends that spelling is the only thing they've altered.
"But can you water that down and have it mean something different? No. If it makes you feel uncomfortable, then something is wrong with it," he said. "Under no circumstances is it appropriate."
And that is the reason, Davis told the group gathered in the gymnasium Thursday night, that when it happens, every person who hears it must take action. He offered four suggestions:
"If you are the object of negative words being spoken, then you have to know who you are."
"If you're the one using the words, remember that respect is due to everybody. If you respect others for who they are, they will respect you for who you are. Different does not mean less than."
If you are a teacher who overhears the words, use every opportunity as a teaching moment. Spend time talking about it, explaining the impact of negative words."
"If you're the parents of a child, sit with them around the dinner table, and talk about the words being used by their friends at school."
Before Thursday's meeting, Isaiah was uncertain that he'd done the right thing when he told adults about what had happened. But after listening to the Rev. Davis, he was smiling and acknowledging that he felt good about what he'd done and how the adults in his life had rallied around him.
"That little man has a lot of fortitude to stand up in a society that says it's OK and says, 'It's not OK.' And then bring it to the attention of adults and ask that they do something about it," Kallunki said. "He deserves a lot of credit."
Kallunki said what began as a painful and troubling event has brought the community a new understanding of each other. He said they plan to rewrite league rules to include name-calling and racial slurs, and said a meeting like Thursday's would likely be a yearly event.
"I feel like we've done the right thing, but I do worry about it being twisted the wrong way," Kallunki said. "We want to take the opportunity to educate. It has to be occurring elsewhere. … If we affect five or six kids, it's going to make a difference."
When someone who worked with at-risk youths asked Davis what he should do as he felt he had to "speak their language" and that sometimes offensive words were part of their language, Davis responded:
"They will speak their language. You always speak yours. … Speak in a way that they'll learn something from you."