Following his resignation as the Las Vegas Raiders head coach, Jon Gruden—who sent a number of racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic email messages to former Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen’s professional email—explained that he did so in order to not be a distraction to his team.
“Thank you to all the players, coaches, staff, and fans of Raider Nation. I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt anyone,” his press release read.
There’s some truth there. In the 2011 emails, first reported on by The New York Times and uncovered during an ongoing investigation of workplace misconduct within the Washington Football Team, Gruden believed he was in a safe space where bigotry would not only be permitted but celebrated. The affable tone of the emails, which included racist comments against NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith (“Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin tires”), calling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a “f----t” (Goodell has spoken publicly about defending his gay brother from bullies), and sending topless photos of cheerleaders to Allen and other men suggests that all this was standard behavior for him and their recipients. He surely didn’t mean harm because those involved wouldn’t be offended by the comments at all.
Gruden’s fall is more a distraction for the public than anything else. While he may have lost the support of the team—which includes the NFL’s first gay active player, Carl Nassib, and a number of Black players—his immediate removal also suggests that the evidence discovered in the investigation may be too damning for the NFL to fully disclose it to the public. Instead, Gruden stepped down, saving the league from scrutinizing a reputation built on decades of contradictions in regards to race, sex, and gender discrimination. It’s fair to assume that when it comes to the 650,000 emails reviewed by the league in connection with their investigation, what isn’t being shared would indict far more people than Gruden. (Despite requests from the NFLPA and media, a league official told USA Today that it has no plans to release the rest of the emails, citing “confidentiality.”)
Instead, Gruden steps down and, if the league is able to suppress the rest of the emails, the true scale of the league’s racism, sexism, and queerphobia will be swept under the rug. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the league’s most controversial figure, Colin Kaepernick—who has committed no crimes, broken no rules or harmed anyone directly—tested the NFL’s stomach for public probing when he and Eric Reid sued the league for collusion in 2017. Back then, it seemed pretty difficult to prove managers across the league tacitly decided Kaepernick was unhirable. But in 2019, after Kaepernick’s lawyer said they’d found “embarrassing evidence” against the NFL, the parties came to a secret settlement. The NFL, it seems, would swallow the $10 million doled out to Public Enemy No. 1 if it meant that the truth wouldn’t see the light of day.
Two years later, the NFL is still doing its damnedest to cover its ass. However, they aren’t alone. Last week, when all the public knew about Gruden’s emails were the derogatory comments he’d made against Smith, former coach and Sunday Night Football NBC analyst Tony Dungy said that he wouldn’t “chalk everything up to racism” and that we should “accept his apology and move forward, just like he has with his team.” Mike Tirico, who co-hosted Monday Night Football with Gruden for seven years, backed Gruden up, saying, “He’s right, he was ashamed of the comments of the email. The comments are wrong, but my experience parallels Hall of Fame wide receiver Tim Brown. He said he ‘never experienced or saw anything that would say Jon was racist in any way.’ That is exactly the experience I had in those seven years of traveling three days together on the road every week.” Drew Brees, the third piece of the broadcast crew (with his own history of tone-deaf statements on race) was noticeably absent.
During this week’s Monday Night Football broadcast on ESPN, play-by-play analysts Steve Levy, Brian Griese, and Louis Riddick said they felt absolutely terrible for the Raiders—and specifically for QB Derek Carr, who was looking forward to the team reaching the next level. There was no mention of the numerous Black players or Carl Nassib, whose decision to come out as queer last season provided the league a face for its queer-friendly PR campaigns. Meanwhile, ESPN has shied away from taking any accountability for Gruden’s actions, even though he worked for ESPN when the emails were sent.
To be clear, Gruden’s comments against Smith are racist, yes, but so are his comments against queer people who are also Black, and that’s on top of his comments against cheerleaders, or the fact that he (possibly illegally) shared topless photos of them. His anger against Goodell, who he suggests pressured the LA Rams to draft “queers” like Michael Sam, is not just queerphobic but racist. All of this taken together paints a very vivid portrait of a hateful individual who thought he had a veil of secrecy within his colleagues’ inboxes.
The onus for holding the NFL and ESPN accountable will now be on the pens and pads of media members. It’s fair to question the motivation behind the initial reporting of Gruden’s racist comments in the Washington Post, a publication run by a billionaire who has shown interest in buying an NFL team. The other question, then, would be: Who leaked the emails to begin with? But that’s a problem for another day. Will sports media follow up these discoveries by taking owners and Goodell to task about the reasons Gruden resigned? If their response is solely about the game of football and being “a distraction” to the team, will those reporters press them about the ongoing investigation and what appears to be a pattern of harmful language and behavior that directly implicates the majority of the league’s Black players and high-ranking officials? It’s fair to assume that some sort of negotiation took place for Gruden to step down. You don’t run away from $60 million guaranteed without at least attempting to recoup some of it. But it seems the NFL is perfectly willing to shell out hundreds of millions to continue to obscure the realities of the league’s leadership. And they will—if we let them.