Is this the first use of profanity during a conversation between NFL officials and players? Of course not. Not even close. The difference in this case is that Williams relayed the story publicly, leaving the league little choice as it attempts to tamp down hysteria surrounding the Miami Dolphins' caustic locker room. The league acted so swiftly that, according to the NFL Referees Association, it didn't fully investigate Ellison's claim that Williams also cursed at him and called him the "N-word." (Williams has denied using the slur.)
The NFLRA has filed a grievance, making this a labor matter focused on restoring Ellison's game check. For me, however, this episode is significant mostly because it represents another peelback of the NFL onion.
If you weren't aware that a professional sports locker room can foster racism, bullying and other manifestations of hatred, then I would love to see your reaction if and when you find out what really happens between the white lines during a game. I'm not sure how many people really want to know how the sausage is made, and I'm quite certain the NFL's marketing arm would prefer a softened version of what happens on the field.
At its most basic form, football is a game about knocking the other guy down -- and making him feel enough pain that he'll think twice about coming near you the next time. Players spend a week priming themselves physically and emotionally for what they view as a battle. Those who aren't naturally vicious and spitting mad tend to don an alter ego, and the results can be the most barbarian and subhuman interactions you'll see in an organized sport.
For just an inkling of the mindset, try to make sense of the pregame huddle/mosh pits most teams use to get "into the zone." It's like another language. During the game, there isn't much that is considered off-limits. Players try to break each other's bones at the bottom of piles. They insult each other with the most caustic language imaginable, including at times the N-word. As a beat writer, I've stood on the field at the end of many games, noting the absolutely crazed expressions on the faces of otherwise civilized individuals. It's what gets them through the maze.
To be clear, you would hope that an official wouldn't get caught up in the hysteria. After all, officials are charged with keeping the peace, or at least the chaos at a dull roar. But I guess this is a long way of saying that I'm not surprised to know that Ellison couldn't help himself, and that he might have been provoked by a racial slur.
Most of all, I'm not going to hammer Ellison for, if anything, lowering himself to the environment. I hate hearing about the use of the N-word, but even if the NFL eradicated its use tomorrow, the ecosystem of this confrontation isn't going anywhere. It's weaved into the game tighter than laces on pigskin.