Jon Gruden’s stunning and swift downfall Monday night, only hours after the New York Times reported that a trove of his emails in the NFL’s possession included years of messages containing homophobic and misogynistic language, and the sharing of topless photos, one of which was of Washington Football Team cheerleaders, was well-earned. His career is in tatters after his resignation from the Las Vegas Raiders, four years into a 10-year contract, and he deserves no sympathy.
But don’t kid yourself. Gruden is hardly the only person in the NFL who thinks and talks that way. He is merely one of the most high-profile and well-compensated, and certainly one of the dumbest, for putting it all in writing.
“I love the Raiders and do not want to be a distraction,” Gruden wrote in a statement Monday night. “Thank you to all the players, coaches, staff, and fans of Raider Nation. I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt anyone.”
That, of course, is laughable. Gruden didn’t mean to hurt anybody because he wasn’t even thinking of anybody but himself, his frat-like circle of friends, and their amusement. The rest — minorities, women, gay players — were collateral damage.
Gruden’s behavior and how it came to light casts a considerable cloud over the league’s efforts toward diversity. Those who have hired the female game officials he reportedly denounced, who supported player protests of racial injustice, who applauded Carl Nassib (a Raider, no less) when he became the NFL’s first openly gay active player — those people in the NFL have tried hard to rid the league of its good-old-boy ways. But Gruden was one of the most popular broadcasters on ESPN’s Monday Night Football among those in the NFL before he returned to being one of the league’s star coaches. These emails, which spanned years, until he made his triumphant return to the Raiders, undermine it all.
Most striking about this entire episode was Gruden’s casual use of language that the league wants you to think is now verboten in its meeting rooms. Gruden’s use of a racial trope when he criticized NFL Players Association leader DeMaurice Smith, as first reported by the Wall Street Journal, seemed so unremarkable to him that he claimed over the weekend to not even remember sending such an email. That he felt comfortable enough using that language and so much more that he put it in writing — that he put it in writing to a long-time Washington team executive — says plenty about the atmosphere in which Gruden operated. He never expected to be caught, of course, and the fact that he used the language so freely says he knew it was acceptable to his audience.
Those “Inspire Change” messages in the stadiums ring a little more hollow right now, don’t they?
Gruden’s emails were in the NFL’s — and then the Raiders’ — hands because they were captured during the investigation into workplace conditions at the Washington Football Team. Bruce Allen, a former top team executive, used his company email in his exchanges with Gruden, the Times reported. Once the workplace investigation was completed, a source said, the league was told it should review about 650,000 emails that the law firm had uncovered. A team of senior league executives have been doing that for the past few months. Finally, last week, their findings were presented to Commissioner Roger Goodell. The Raiders knew of them for at least three days while the league waited for them to handle the burgeoning crisis — with Gruden coaching on Sunday and making ill-advised comments all along. Finally, with more emails coming to light on Monday evening, Gruden resigned.
The workplace conduct investigation yielded a $10 million fine for the WFT and an agreement that owner Daniel Snyder would stay away from running the team for an unspecified period of time. But there was no written report from the investigation. Attorney Beth Wilkinson, who led the probe, delivered her findings orally to the league, the league saying it was to protect the women who had come forward.
Given the content of the sliver of emails that were connected to Gruden, you’d have to be pretty naïve not to believe that what Wilkinson found connected to the Washington Football Team and the toxic environment Snyder allowed there was at least as troubling as, and potentially worse than, Gruden’s reported remarks. We might never know that — Snyder’s emails didn’t leak — but remember that the recipient of Gruden’s emails, Allen, apparently felt comfortable enough receiving Gruden’s vitriol that he let them arrive on his company email at Snyder’s team. Men like Allen are the ones who hire coaches and other executives. They are the ones responsible for diversifying the ranks of NFL decision-makers.
Remember that power structure, and what the reported content of Gruden’s emails revealed about the thinking within it, the next time the hiring cycle begins or an employee alleges workplace harassment. Gruden isn’t alone in his thinking; his just came to light, to devastating effect. But there are others who think and talk like Gruden, and some of them have influential jobs, too. Some of them are likely hitting delete tonight. The damage all of them have done for years can’t be undone that easily.