When the N-word Hits Home

In the wake of allegations that Mira Costa High School's girls basketball coach had used the N-word with students, Patch explores the complexities behind this deep-rooted term. Plus, take our poll.

The Mira Costa High School girls basketball team started this season with a , yet the real story behind this shift in leadership remains a blur.

Mira Costa girls basketball coach Oct. 19, after leading the team to finish second in the Bay League last season and just weeks before the start of the 2011-2012 season.

While Takahashi has avoided the media, not returned phone calls and not confirmed the reason for his departure, the coach resigned for "personal reasons, so that he may spend more time with his family."

But some players and parents told Patch Takahashi was forced to resign for another personal reason: He used the N-word, a term with a long, painful and complex history in our country.

Some of the girls on the Mira Costa basketball team said they wish Takahashi was given a warning and not forced to resign.

Just like any other basketball coach at the high school, college or professional level, Takahashi occasionally let a couple of curse words slip on the court, his players said. It would happen both casually and in the heat of a game.

"He’s comfortable with us," said junior forward Ashley Reese about Takahashi, who’s Asian. "He would say, like, ‘what’s up, nigga? How you doin’ today?’… He’s very playful."

Ashley said Takahashi used the N-word with all of the girls on the team, and some of the girls (of all races) used it with each other. Ashley was one of three black players on the Mira Costa girls varsity basketball team coached by Takahashi last season. About 6 percent of Mira Costa students are black.

"Everything Craig says in front of us, he says in front of our parents… He says, like, his team is our family," Ashley said. She and some of her teammates said they didn’t think any parents used the N-word.

Reflective of their generation, the teenage players said the word doesn’t faze them. But the controversy surrounding the emotionally charged N-word does.

'We both bad niggas. We don’t do no crawlin.'

The Mira Costa girls basketball players are growing up in a time when the N-word is heard in modern art and pop culture. It’s in the title of the new club-killin’ hit "Ni**as in Paris" by Kanye West and Jay Z, which ranked No. 14 on iTunes' list of top singles at publication.

"The word really comes from the word negro [or niger in Latin], which was a word that was used by the Portuguese and the Spanish to describe black people," said Brenda Stevenson, who chairs the interdepartmental program in Afro-American studies at UCLA.

Stevenson also pointed out that extensive research behind the word was published in the book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, written by Harvard scholar Randall Kennedy, which found that one of the earliest written reference to the N-word, as it is used now, stems from 1619.

That year, "John Rolfe [the Jamestown settler who married Pocahontas] recorded in his journal the first shipment of Africans to Virginia… He listed them as 'negars,'" Kennedy wrote.

From then on, variations of the N-word emerged throughout history, and all were used to categorize people of African descent, Stevenson said.

"Africans themselves did not refer to themselves in that way… Only when they were enslaved did they begin to refer to themselves in this kind of way," Stevenson said, adding "If you look at the narratives of slaves for example, particularly field slaves who were not educated, they referred to themselves in that way because their owners did… When a person used it to describe themselves, for example, they related it to themselves as someone who doesn’t have very much power in society."

Once slaves were freed, the N-word remained in the American language but "it was always used in a more negative connotation," Stevenson said.

Just 57 years ago, as the Civil Rights Movement took off, the N-word was integrated as slang in black culture and sports.

After Joe Frazier, who died Nov. 7, lost to Muhammad Ali in the legendary 1975 heavyweight championship fight (when Ali reclaimed his title), Frazier reportedly said, "We both bad niggas. We don’t do no crawlin.’"

In 1967, Ali was stripped of his title after refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. "I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong," he said then. "No Vietcong ever called me nigger."

The N-word still exists in sports, but not just as slang in the locker room. Sometimes its ugly history emerges.

Just last year in Cincinnati, a caller into the popular television show Sports of All Sorts said in a rant on-air that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is "a nigger."

The word was heard across the airwaves, according to reports, much to the chagrin of host John Popovich and the rest of the newsroom. Popovich apologized immediately on-air to viewers.

'The most influential people in my life have been my coaches'

Sports and language have always seemed to be a different ball game, literally.

Words that make some people cringe are often used jokingly or in the heat of the game. Shit happens.

"Craig [Takahashi] said that if you can’t take the way he talks to you then get out of the gym. He does it for a purpose to make us better," said Mira Costa student Nao Shiota, who was on the basketball team last year. Nao told Patch she left the team this year because of Takahashi's departure.

Two of Nao’s teammates—forward Meghan Peneueta, who’s Samoan, and point guard Haley Tojo, who’s Asian—agreed Takahashi's language choices were an effort to make them better players. Meghan and Haley said they've never been maliciously referred to with a racial slur.

But in high school sports, since the speaker-listener relationship is often that of coach-player, there are boundaries when it comes to language, according to the California Interscholastic Federation.

The federation governs interscholastic athletics across the state, including Mira Costa’s Bay League.

The federation’s constitution and bylaws encourage school officials, coaches and parents to "assure that rules against profanity, trash-talking, taunting, arguing calls and other forms of bad sportsmanship are consistently and strictly enforced" in order to create "a positive atmosphere of character development." (See accompanying bylaws under photo.)

While Mira Costa’s principal refused to comment any further on Takahashi’s departure, he did answer questions about the player-coach relationship.

"Personally, next to my parents, the most influential people in my life have been my coaches, and you never forget them," Dale told Patch. "I can still do a deadpan imitation of my basketball coach all these years later, and you know they’re influential people in your life, that’s why we always want coaches that exhibit the positive character and the positive moral example in our school and in our community."

While such expectations are seen on the high school level, the same has been seen at the pro level.

Just look at what happened to Kobe Bryant in that April 12 game against the San Antonio Spurs when he called referee Bennie Adams an anti-gay slur. The Los Angeles Lakers all-star guard was fined $100,000 by the NBA.

But while bylaws and federations make the rules governing language use on the court, who makes the unwritten rules behind the bench?

'I was born colored, I became Negro'

A part of young black America has embraced the N-word, but does that give people of other races the pass to use it? It depends on whom you ask.

When Patch asked Meghan if circumstances would have been different for Takahashi if he were a white man using the N-word Meghan paused for a moment and said no. But, furrowing her brow, Haley said, "I think it would be different if he was white."

Stevenson said, "My advice to anyone is never to use that word.

"The words for different ethnic groups evolve over time... I was born colored, I became Negro, when I graduated from college, I was African-American," she said. "But the history of African-Americans in our society has not improved substantially enough for that word, in the near future at least, to take on any connotations except for a negative one."

smh November 30, 2011 at 12:23 AM
This is thought provoking...well done Patch.
H. Lewis Smith December 05, 2011 at 03:33 AM
The n-word is a racist term that shouldn't be used by anyone, and African Americans, those who make liberal use of the term—of all people—definitely should refrain from keeping the word alive. The following petition campaign drive is a message to Black America denouncing its use of the pejorative term: http://www.change.org/petitions/black-african-americans-to-denounce-and-stop-referring-to-one-another-as-the-n-word-ngahs?share_id=KieLfUvvjt&pe=d2e


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