The picture of Jon Gruden that emerged over the past several days was a person who could no longer hold his 10-year, $100 million post as the Raiders head coach.
The Wall Street Journal published last week a 2011 email in which Gruden used racist language when referring to the executive director of the players union, DeMaurice Smith, who is Black. A New York Times report on Monday cited “numerous” other emails sent over a seven-year period in which Gruden used misogynistic and anti-LGBTQ language “casually and frequently,” and rebuked major developments in the sport such as a gay player being drafted, women officials and players demonstrating against racial injustice during the national anthem.
The contents of these published messages are crude and derogatory, and at odds with the values the NFL claims to espouse. Gruden resigned shortly after the Times story was published. Gruden apologized after the first email was released but continued to assert that he is not racist and had no racial intentions with his comments, demonstrating apparently willful disregard for the harm inherent to the words he chose. When the Times published the contents of the rest of the emails, 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.
Gruden’s emails were collected and reviewed by the NFL in conjunction with the league’s investigation of the Washington football team’s work environment. (Gruden reportedly exchanged the messages with Bruce Allen, his former colleague and the then-team president of the Washington NFL club, while Gruden was still working as a color commentator for ESPN’s Monday Night Football.) Now, it’s impossible not to address the elephant in the room. Earlier this summer, when the league announced the conclusion of the Washington investigation, Lisa Friel, special counsel for investigations, told reporters that the results showed “the culture of the club was very toxic and fell far short of the NFL’s values.” But the league did not request a written report from investigator Beth Wilkinson, instead taking only an oral report because the subject matter was deemed sensitive.
Gruden’s emails evoked a visceral reaction. They were difficult to read. Their public release required Gruden to face consequences. These developments should also compel the league to make public the specifics of the toxic work environment in Washington.
If the NFL had asked for a written report to be produced and released publicly for the investigation into the Washington football team, would the same have been true for owner Daniel Snyder or other past or present members of the organization? Gruden was forced to resign. The NFL fined the Washington club $10 million for creating a workplace culture permeated with bullying, intimidation and harassment while Snyder was the owner. His family was not forced to sell the team, though, and Snyder was simply shelved for a while, as his wife, Tanya, was tasked with taking on day-to-day operations for at least the “next several months.”
Gruden’s conduct can and should be discussed on its own, as well as how this kind of hateful speech and ideology is not only tolerated, but in some cases encouraged, in the NFL. The owner of the Raiders, Mark Davis, had chased Gruden for years, so desperate to bring him back to the Raiders that he made a mockery of the Rooney rule and awarded him total power. That’s hardly the kind of environment in which any conduct like that shown in the emails would be corrected. Gruden’s initial public apologies were lacking, but perhaps his facing consequences will now spur him to acknowledge, confront and truly understand the harm caused by his derogatory behavior. “I don’t want to keep addressing it,” he said after the game on Sunday. Now, he has no choice but to do so. Hopefully he uses this time to educate himself.
But in order for him to face accountability, and for this kind of behavior to be condemned, it took Gruden’s emails becoming public. If the NFL is truly committed to its stated values, it will do the same with the rest of the information collected in the Washington investigation.