Jon Gruden has long been a well-liked and influential figure in NFL circles and has enjoyed a long run as one of the public faces of the league. Well-known for his boyish appearance but intense scowl, “Chuckie” was a Super Bowl winning coach, a respected ESPN and Monday Night Football analyst and commentator, and—until a few days ago—the Coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.
This past weekend, the world got a shocking glimpse into a very different side of Jon Gruden than the one that he reveals publicly. Years of emails revealed a man who checks pretty much every box of toxic vileness and bigotry one could imagine: racism, misogyny, homophobic slurs, criticizing efforts to reduce concussions and head injuries, and more.
The public became aware of this over the course of two media reports about Gruden’s private emails. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Jon Gruden Used Racial Trope to Describe NFLPA Chief DeMaurice Smith in 2011 Email.” In the email exchange between Gruden, who was an ESPN analyst at the time and Bruce Allen, who was then the president of the Washington Football Team, Gruden wrote “Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin tires.” The Gruden email was one of hundreds of thousands of emails that were collected in the NFL’s investigation of workplace misconduct claims regarding the Washington Football Team.
After saying he didn’t remember the email, Gruden offered up a lame apology and explanation (“I was really upset [at the then-state of labor negotiations] and went too far” but “I never had a blade of racism in me.”) He apologized to his team, and some players and NFL media luminaries even came to his defense. As the story trended on Twitter, comments talking about how long ago it was and the usual critical murmurs about “cancel culture” began to amass.
Would it just blow over? It seemed that it might.
But wait. There was more. Much more.
The other shoe dropped on Monday when a New York Times story disclosed additional emails that demonstrated that the issue was far broader and far worse than a single email using a racist trope. Additional email records from 2011-2018 show that in emails to Allen and others, Gruden “casually and frequently unleashed misogynistic and homophobic language over several years to denigrate people around the game and to mock some of the league’s momentous changes.”
For example, “Gruden called the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, a “f**got” and a “clueless anti football p**sy” and said that Goodell should not have pressured Jeff Fisher, then the coach of the Rams, to draft “queers,” a reference to Michael Sam, a gay player chosen by the team in 2014. In numerous emails during a seven-year period ending in early 2018, Gruden criticized Goodell and the league for trying to reduce concussions and said that Eric Reid, a player who had demonstrated during the playing of the national anthem, should be fired. In several instances, Gruden used a homophobic slur to refer to Goodell and offensive language to describe some N.F.L. owners, coaches and journalists who cover the league.” He also “exchanged emails with Allen and other men that included photos of women wearing only bikini bottoms, including one photo of two Washington team cheerleaders.”
It should surprise absolutely no one that it wasn’t just one “mistaken” racist email. We know that the dots often connect between racism, misogyny and homophobia. It’s a toxic brew, and one that is often at the center of a toxic “football culture”.
For Gruden, there was no escaping his own words.
As Jenny Vrentas concluded, writing for Sports Illustrated: “Gruden’s own words disqualified him from leading an NFL franchise, moreover one with an openly gay player, Carl Nassib, and in a league that is 70% Black.”
Within hours, by the time Monday Night Football was airing that evening, Gruden resigned.
But this story goes far deeper than Jon Gruden, and it raises massive questions about the ruling elites of the NFL, the ultimate old white boys club.
As the New York Times aptly summarized, “Taken together, the emails provide an unvarnished look into the clubby culture of one N.F.L. circle of peers, where white male decision makers felt comfortable sharing pornographic images, deriding the league policies, and jocularly sharing homophobic language…Their banter flies in the face of the league’s public denouncements of racism and sexism and its promises to be more inclusive amid criticism for not listening to the concerns of Black players, who make up about 70 percent of rosters. The N.F.L. has in the past struggled to discipline personnel who have committed acts of domestic violence and been condemned for failing to adequately address harassment of women, including N.F.L. cheerleaders.”
1. This is a Window Into the NFL’s Systemic Problems On These Issues
Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Head Injuries.
The NFL would like the public to believe it has evolved on all of these issues. Has it really?
These communications hint at a massive disconnect between the public-facing image that the NFL seeks to project on these issues and the views, communications and actions of its powerful insiders.
Gruden wasn’t having these conversations with himself. Many others were involved. He was talking with other league officials, executives, as well as high profile businessmen and financial supporters, apparently including the co-founder of Hooters. (You can’t make this up). He was well traveled in NFL and NFL media circles for years. Yet before this week, no one knew a thing about his inappropriate and offensive views on this wide range of issues.
When you consider how many people kept Gruden’s statements and views secret and for how long, and how many people engaged with him back and forth on these emails, it is safe to assume that the vile bigoted private voice of Jon Gruden is not his alone, but is shared by members of the NFL’s elite.
If you thought that these emails would have been reported to officials by those who were receiving them, well the problem is that these are the same people. #JonGruden
— Sage Rosenfels (@SageRosenfels18) October 12, 2021
As William Rhoden writes in the Undefeated, what matters most is what happens next:
“The people who enabled Gruden, who laughed at his racist jokes, guffawed and winked at his anti-gay quips, are still around. So why is it important that we root out these enablers? These enablers are in positions of power and control, making important decisions about who gets hired, who gets promoted and which initiatives are launched.”
We know the lengths that its ruling elites will go to “Protect the Shield,” and to safeguard the massively powerful cash cow that is the National Football League. Gruden himself was protected for years; how many NFL insiders knew his views, but said nothing, or even worse, shared them?
When I was texting with my college-age son, Jacob, about the bombshell news about Gruden, his takeaway was: “It’s embarrassing that so many people knew for so long and he was protected because he is white and has money.”
He’s right. This is a story about bigotry, privilege, secrecy and protecting your own. Only a grand reckoning that confronts this will address the underlying problems.
2. The Washington Football Team Workplace Investigation: What Else Don’t We Know?
We seem unlikely to be getting that reckoning.
As Don Van Natta Jr. observed on Twitter, the NFL has kept everything about its investigation into the Washington Football Team, the one that led to the collection of these emails and hundreds of thousands of others, secret:
“The only documents from the NFL’s inquiry of a toxic workplace inside the Washington Football Team are the offensive Jon Gruden emails, leaked days after being found. No report, no findings, no emails were released/leaked by the NFL about its inquiry of Dan Snyder and the WFT…”
When the investigation concluded, no written report was made. The NFL requested only an oral report. All we know is that an abusive toxic workplace was found to exist and a monetary fine was levied. There is surely a reason for not disclosing the details; if the Gruden emails are any indication, they are sure to be massively embarrassing for the League.
As we are seeing with the swift and visceral public reaction to the Gruden emails, sunlight is indeed the best disinfectant. There is no accountability when the bad actors hide in dark back rooms. Accountability for Gruden is a good thing. But in terms of addressing any deeper more widespread problems, it is just scratching the surface. And its certainly worth asking why the NFL has only leaked the Gruden emails, but has refused to make the other emails from the investigation public.
In this vein, some—including many in the sports media and the NFL Players Association—are calling for the details of the WFT investigation to be publicly released. As Mike Florio asks, “Does the league want us to regard Gruden as an outlier? Maybe. Or maybe the truth is that the league simply doesn’t want us to see how deep and dark and dirty the rabbit hole is.”
These calls for for transparency should be heeded: “If the NFL is truly committed to its stated values of inclusion, they’ll release the rest of the details of their investigation into the “toxic” work environment overseen by one of its owners.”
This would be a tremendous step towards uncovering and cleaning up the toxic elements within the NFL’s power structure. But, I’m not holding my breathe on this one. Thus far the NFL has resisted. The League and its teams seem to have little interest in opening themselves up to this level of scrutiny; they would much rather get back to just playing football and printing money.
This is how the NFL survives. “Gruden’s emails display a culture of racism, sexism, homophob…. OH SHIT! LAMAR!!!!!!!”
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) October 12, 2021
3. It’s Called Accountability. Cancel Culture Is Not a Thing.
Getting back to Gruden…
Whenever anyone faces consequences these days, it seems that “cancel culture” is the rallying cry on the other side. It’s a convenient boogeyman for those seeking to evade accountability for their actions.
Consider this your daily reminder that there’s no such thing as “cancel culture.” Just people being held accountable for their shitty actions.
— Ben_Wanderin’ (@Ben_Wanderin) October 12, 2021
Jon Gruden had to go, immediately. And not one person should blame “cancel culture”, this is called accountability. Period. pic.twitter.com/NIqPL2U7HV
— Emmanuel Acho (@EmmanuelAcho) October 12, 2021
4. Addressing The No One Is Pure / Glass Houses / Throwing Stones Argument
There are also plenty of Gruden defenders out there saying “Oh sure, let’s see YOUR private emails from ten years ago.”
Why does it seem like more people would rather rail against “cancel culture” or defend vile bigotry on the basis of “in private everyone does it” than simply hold someone accountable for being a bigot? It’s a problem.
Choosing to defend Gruden and then telling on yourself like this is certainly a choice. There are plenty of people out there not being bigots in their private conversations. Just not the people making this argument, apparently. They are only telling on themselves.
Let he who has never sent cartoonishly racist or homophobic e-mails to the co-founder of Hooters cast the first stone
— Pablo S. Torre (@PabloTorre) October 12, 2021
5. A Reminder of the NFL’s Two-Faced Stance on BLM Protests (and Potentially Other Issues)
Gruden’s emails again highlight the NFL’s anti-BLM protest position. Although the League has publicly stated that it has come around, these private missives and the fact that the players who led the movement remain unemployed tell a very different story.
A reminder, as if anyone needs it, that Colin Kaepernick has been permanently blacklisted from employment with any NFL team for the egregious act of…kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against Black people.
— Geoff Gowe 🍁 (@geoffgowe) October 12, 2021
For those outraged by this part, remember that the Gruden’s wishes won out on Eric Reid. I sure don’t see him on any roster. This is wayyyyyy beyond Gruden. https://t.co/OVeCGn2w90
— Dave Zirin (@EdgeofSports) October 12, 2021
Unfortunately, the same criticism could be made on any number of issues and controversies that the NFL has been involved in over the years, from racism to domestic violence to head injuries to homophobia in locker rooms.
And that’s the visceral gut punch of seeing these emails. It hurts. Because they are a reminder that true progress cannot be made by saying the right things publicly, when behind the scenes, shrouded by secrecy, those in power are undermining progress all the while and laughing about it.
Photo Credit: iStock