Jon Gruden’s grubby bigotry could be just the start of the NFL’s problems
The Las Vegas Raiders coach resigned after messages showed him using racist and homophobic language. The NFL has another 650,000 emails in its possession
Say what you want about Jon Gruden – and plenty of people have – but he does have a novel take on equality.
In a series of emails reported by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal over the last week, the now former Las Vegas Raiders coach insulted pretty much every section of America. Black people (he said NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith had “lips the size of michellin [sic] tires”); gay people (he bemoaned the fact that the NFL was encouraging teams to draft “queers”); women (he doesn’t like them refereeing games, preferring men to make a mess of pass interference calls); peaceful protesters (he said Eric Reid, who knelt alongside Colin Kaepernick, should be fired – no idea where he got that one from); and future heads of state (he called then-US vice president Joe Biden a “nervous clueless pussy” in 2012). To prove he wasn’t prejudiced he also insulted his own demographic: overpromoted, rich white guys who are not particularly good at their jobs (he called NFL commissioner a “faggot” and a “clueless anti football pussy”). And that’s just the stuff he wrote down.
There are several takeaways from the incident. First of all, for a man who, judging by his emails, thinks the NFL is being overtaken by gutless cowards, Gruden sure looks like one himself. Because, despite making a career portraying himself as one someone who Tells It Like It Is, he didn’t even have the courage to insult any of his targets to their face.
The emails were sent during his time in the broadcast booth with ESPN, which spanned the period of NFL player protests. But at no point did he say he disagreed with them or think that Reid should lose his job. When one of his own players, Carl Nassib, became the first active NFL player to come out as gay, Gruden said: “I learned a long time ago what makes a man different is what makes him great.” In this case “a long time ago” is clearly after 2014, when he didn’t want gay players in the league. Gruden appears to think women in football are either to be despised (those pesky female refs) or ogled at (he exchanged topless photos of cheerleaders with former Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen), but he was happy to be paid by one – the Raiders had a female chief executive, Amy Trask, during his first stint with the team. And despite the fact that he thinks it’s acceptable to use racist stereotypes in emails to his friends, he showed a different side to his Black players: “He’s never rubbed me a certain way, that type of way,” said Raiders running back Josh Jacobs on Sunday.
But the sad thing here isn’t Gruden’s dismal brand of prejudice. It’s the damage it does to others in the NFL. Do the 65% of players in the league who are Black wonder whether the white coach (and he’s almost certainly white) who says he loves and values them in fact thinks in racist stereotypes. The next time Nassib is assured his sexuality isn’t a problem in the locker room, does he recall that that’s exactly what Gruden said? Do cheerleaders, who are already faced with hostile workplaces, fear their bosses are exchanging photos of them?
The league’s defenders will say that Gruden is an outlier, that his emails are from before he took over the Raiders in 2018 and the NFL – and America – is a different place now, following a summer of racial reckoning following the police murder of George Floyd. And the NFL has certainly paid lip service to that idea, with its apology for not listening to players during the national anthem protests started by Kaepernick.
But this is still a league – and a country – where a coach with a history of alleged racist comments can find a job. Where fans boo a moment of silence to acknowledge that, on balance, inequality is probably a bad thing. Where there were three Black head coaches in 2003 when the Rooney Rule was adopted and where there are now … three. Where a team changes its racist nickname only after pressure from sponsors. Where there are rumors that the emails were leaked to the Times and Journal by someone within the NFL not because they were bigoted, but because Gruden insulted Goodell.
We may soon discover whether Gruden is an outlier soon enough anyway. The emails were among 650,000 reviewed by the NFL during an investigation into misconduct at the Washington Football Team. On Tuesday, NBC’s Mike Florio reported that there is unease around the league that emails implicating other people who “sent or received emails with racist, homophobic, transphobic, and/or misogynistic content” could come to light. Hours later the NFL Players Association said it will ask the league to release the remained of the emails. The league may refuse, of course, but that won’t necessarily stop leaks – we’ve already seen with the Gruden situation that people have scores to settle.
Few will be surprised if the rot goes a lot deeper than Gruden.