Thanks to a trove of Jon Gruden’s offensive e-mails, the public got a look inside one of the NFL’s inner circles.
And what was seen isn’t pretty.
Reporting by the Wall Street Journal and New York Times shed light on Gruden’s character, or lack thereof. That work also provided a glimpse of how some movers and shakers of the pro football industry think and why the sport struggles with so many lingering issues.
Player relations have always been problematic in the NFL. The league has treated rank-and-file players as disposable. It downplayed its concussion crisis and failed to adequately aid former players in distress.
The league remained tone deaf to the social crises that prompted player protests. It was slow to respect the rights of those in the LGBTQ+ community. It shamelessly exploited its female cheerleaders and it was slow to allow women to advance in non-playing positions.
In missives exchanged with former Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen and others between 2011 and 2017, Gruden covered these topics and more.
He railed against the St. Louis Rams’ drafting of Michael Sam, the former Mizzou star who went on to become the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team; the NFL’s efforts to curtail concussions; player demonstrations during the national anthem; and the employment of female officials.
He used homophobic slurs to describe NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. He used racist tropes to describe DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association.
“Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin (sic) tires” was one of Gruden’s deplorable quips.
These weren’t the opinions of some fringe caveman character. Gruden is one of the NFL’s highest-profile coaches — or at least he was until he resigned his post Monday with the Las Vegas Raiders with more than six years and $60 million left on his contract.
Between his head-coaching gigs, Gruden prospered as one of the sport’s brightest broadcast media stars. He starred for ESPN while firing off these damning emails to Allen and some associates on his personal account.
As the Times noted, “Taken together, the emails provide an unvarnished look into the clubby culture of one NFL circle of peers, where white male decision makers felt comfortable sharing pornographic images, deriding the league policies and jocularly sharing homophobic language.”
Gruden’s emails came to light after attorney Beth Wilkinson investigated the toxic work environment within the Washington Football Team franchise.
The NFL oversaw Wilkinson’s probe and fined team owner Dan Snyder $10 million after digesting her findings. But the league has thus far kept a lid on the specifics.
Attorneys Lisa Banks and Debra Katz, who represent more than 40 former Washington Football Team employees, joined Smith and the NFLPA in calling on the league to come clean.
“It is truly outrageous that after the NFL’s 10-month long investigation involving hundreds of witnesses and 650,000 documents related to the longtime culture of harassment and abuse at the Washington Football Team, the only person to be held accountable and lose their job is the coach of the Las Vegas Raiders,” they said in a written statement. “Our clients and the public at large deserve transparency and accountability. If not, the NFL and Roger Goodell must explain why they appear intent on protecting the Washington Football Team and owner Dan Snyder at all costs.”
Yeah, well, that’s how the NFL operates.
But it’s one thing to cover up the suspicious actions of the New England Patriots, who famously went to extremes to gain a competitive edge. That’s just typical PR to keep folks moving on to other topics.
It’s a much different thing to gloss over core problems with how this industry deals with its people, and others. The NFL almost never does the right thing until it absolutely has to.
One exception came when Jeff Fisher stepped up to the plate and let the Rams draft the openly gay Sam in 2014 after his fine college career at Missouri. The Rams handled that whole situation about as well as a team could under circumstances of the time. Fisher and Co. indulged the resulting media circus and gave Sam the opportunity to test his skills at the highest level.
This prompted Gruden to use various slurs to describe Goodell and bemoan the fact that Fisher was pressured into drafting “queers.”
The league was far less successful handling player protests. Many of the sport’s most prominent leaders, like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, took public positions that did not age well. The NFL turned journeyman-caliber quarterback Colin Kaepernick into a prominent social activist who will stand as a historic figure in the fight for needed police reforms.
The league won’t handle this current scenario well either. It will make Gruden go away, making sure he doesn’t coach again or get another high-profile football media job.
The league will make Allen stay away, too. There is no chance he will land in another NFL front office.
The league will pretend that there is nothing else to see here, just a few rogue individuals who stepped out of line.
But once again you’ve seen behind the curtain. You have seen how some folks in that industry really think — and by now you can’t be terribly surprised.