Jon Gruden’s resignation from the Las Vegas Raiders, after stunning revelations about his history of racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails, points to a deep truth about the National Football League: The league can write as many antiracism slogans in end zones and add as many rainbows to its social media accounts as it wants, but its hypocrisy is evident in the actions of its decision makers.
Gruden has long been part of the league’s widespread clique of power brokers, esteemed for his coaching, leadership and charisma.
That’s why this matters.
The emails he shared with Bruce Allen, a longtime N.F.L. team executive, over a span of nearly a decade underscore that behind the league’s displays of change a stiff undercurrent of resentment has kept the sport from truly evolving.
Gruden, who was a television analyst when he sent the emails, aimed particular ire at DeMaurice Smith, the African American executive director of the N.F.L. Players Association, using a hateful analogy focused on Smith’s appearance.
Gruden would later deny his remark had racist intent, a dodge by a so-called leader if ever there was one. He issued a series of half-baked apologies. He said he was sorry for being offensive, that he was merely trying to say that Smith was a liar. He claimed he did not “have a racist bone” in his body.
Smith was clear in his response. He hit grace notes that spoke the truth to power and highlighted a pervasive struggle experienced by African Americans, particularly in corporate settings.
“You know people are sometimes saying things behind your back that are racist just like you see people talk and write about you using thinly coded and racist language,” Smith said. “Racism like this comes from the fact that I’m at the same table as they are, and they don’t think someone who looks like me belongs.”
Sitting at the core of Smith’s statement is this: Black suspicion and concern about prejudiced, two-faced treatment by whites is entirely justified. In the N.F.L., coaches like Gruden dish out platitudes about African American players in front of cameras and mics, but what do they really say behind closed doors?
The truth is plain to see. Emails, exchanged in a seven-year span starting in 2011 between Gruden and his longtime friend Allen, then president of Washington’s N.F.L. team, show Gruden hardly living up to his reputation as a principled, old-school leader. Instead, he reveals himself as a guy who denigrates and debases anyone who is not a white man.
Especially women. In back-and-forths among Gruden and Allen and some of their friends, Gruden seems more than elated to throw around slang terms for a woman’s genitalia as pejorative. He apparently thinks this is a fantastic way to score points, and he repeatedly uses these terms when referring to N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Maybe we should have a name change for the N.F.L.: the Neanderthal Football League.
This summer, the N.F.L. and Gruden openly cheered the news that Carl Nassib, a Raiders defensive lineman, had become the league’s first active player to come out as gay. What a sham. Gruden wrote a chain of emails littered with virulent homophobia that underscored the dissonance between the inclusive welcome mat the league put out and the beliefs of the guy actually charged with leading Nassib’s career.
To Gruden and his group of bros, society’s marginalized are nothing more than punch lines.
“Goodell shouldn’t call fisher and tell him to draft queers,” he wrote in 2015, referring to Jeff Fisher, then the Rams coach, who made Michael Sam the league’s first openly gay draft pick. A few months later, he and Allen mocked Caitlyn Jenner, who received an award from ESPN after coming out as transgender.
The emails are full of such horrific ugliness. They also shed light on groupthink that developed among N.F.L. owners, executives and head coaches about the movement spurred by outspoken African American players to protest police abuse and racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem.
San Francisco 49ers defensive back Eric Reid was one of the first players to kneel during the anthem. He did so along with 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick during the 2016 season. Using vulgar language, Gruden stated that Reid should be cut.
Tellingly, Reid and Kaepernick have been blackballed from the game. Though they are still in their prime, no team will sign either man.
With high-ranking N.F.L. executives thinking this way about players standing up for justice, no wonder Kaepernick and Reid are viewed throughout the league as untouchable pariahs.
After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked weeks of turbulent national protest, the league was finally shamed into changing its tune on issues of race. Goodell came forward, after being called out by players, to say what he had previously avoided: “Black Lives Matter.” He apologized for not doing so before and vowed that the N.F.L. would change.
In the wake of the protests and civic unrest of 2020, the league continues to make a big deal of its supposed commitment to supporting women, L.G.B.T.Q. people and particularly African Americans. This year, the N.F.L. kept up the practice of painting feel-good phrases like “End Racism” in end zones and of allowing players to wear approved slogans like “Black Lives Matter” on the back of helmets.
The hypocrisy is clear and shows itself most clearly on matters of race.
Black players make up close to 70 percent of N.F.L. rosters, including most of the league’s biggest stars. Yet there are only five Black general managers of teams. There are no Black team owners with majority shares.
And only three out of 32 head coaches are Black, despite eight head coach vacancies in the last hiring period.
Art Shell, the first Black head coach in the league’s modern era, was hired in 1989, notably by the Raiders. In 32 years, real change has been scant.
Powerful men, particularly powerful white men, have by far the most sway in professional football. How they act, whom they anoint and hire, what they say, and in this case the casual jokes and demeaning put-downs underscore the lie of the league’s public-facing displays. These are the men who make the day-to-day decisions in football. And those emails are where the N.F.L.’s real culture was exhibited.
That’s the reality, no matter how Goodell and the league’s owners spin it.