Jon Gruden’s disgusting emails are just the latest embarrassment for a league determined to do the worst.
Jon Gruden didn’t step down as the Oakland Raiders’ head coach on Monday because the NFL successfully expelled an outlier in their league. He stepped down because the NFL has cultivated such a debaucherous culture that they can accidentally discover one sexist while investigating another.
In emails sent by Gruden to the former president of the Washington Football Team Bruce Allen and others between 2011 and 2018, Gruden referred to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell with homosexual slurs, perpetuated racist stereotypes about Black people by comparing NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith’s lips to Michelin tires, and scoffed at the idea of the NFL introducing female referees. These emails only came to light due to the NFL’s extensive workplace misconduct investigation into the Washington Football Team, and not because there was any expressed concern over the conduct of one of the most well-liked figures in NFL circles.
Gruden is an NFL lifer, spending 29 of his 58 years on Earth in various roles in the NFL including an initial stint as Raiders’ head coach between 1998 and 2001, and bringing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers its first Super Bowl championship during his six-year run as the team’s head coach between 2002 and 2008. Later, Gruden was an announcer for ESPN and one of the most recognizable figures on one of the network’s most popular programs, Monday Night Football. It’s hard to understate how quickly and pervasively Gruden’s presence was instilled throughout the sport and ESPN. After joining ESPN as an analyst on Monday Night Football in May 2008, he soon became an analyst for ESPN’s coverage of the NFL Draft, helped call the 2010 BCS National Championship Game on ESPN Radio, and received his own series on ESPN Jon Gruden's QB Camp, all within his first four years at the company.
By 2015, after just seven years of ever being an on-air personality, he became the highest-paid one at ESPN. From the looks of his unearthed private emails contrasted with his widespread public appeal, you had to be in Gruden’s inner circle to know the monster inside the charmer. Within those conciliatory confines, where homophobia is encouraged and sexism is expected, Gruden’s comfort eventually became his downfall. In one email exchange, Hooters co-founder Ed Droste shared a sexist meme of female referees, and Gruden criticized Goodell for allowing women on the sidelines. In another, Gruden jokingly tells Allen to ask Bryan Glazer, a member of the Glazer family which owns the Buccaneers, to perform oral sex on him, to which Allen jokes he may do. Gruden also referred to Goodell with other homosexual slurs and profanities, and said that Goodell shouldn’t have pressured then-Los Angeles Rams coach Jeff Fisher to draft "queers," a reference to the team’s decision to pick Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL, in 2014. These are influential, wealthy white men using their private circle as a vehicle to reinforce their discriminatory beliefs, a microcosm of the NFL and one that Gruden’s second stint with the Raiders was partly founded on.
Shortly after a press conference on January 9, 2018 that announced Gruden as the Raiders' new head coach, team owner Mark Davis told reporters he and Gruden essentially came to terms on the then-ESPN announcer becoming the team’s leader on Christmas Eve 2017. For Davis, the Christmas Eve chat was the culmination of a six-year pursuit of the former coach to take the helm of the Raiders. His borderline obsession with Gruden was so blinding, Gruden essentially agreed to become the Raiders’ new head coach before Davis had even fired the team’s coach at the time, Jack Del Rio. Before anyone knew there was a Raiders coaching competition, it was already over. That was as efficient as it was problematic.
In 2003, 15 years before Gruden and Davis’s backroom deal turned into a new head coaching change, the NFL attempted to curb racism around coaching in the league by implementing the Rooney Rule. The rule stipulates NFL teams must interview at least one ethnic-minority candidate as part of their coaching searches. The intent of the rule was to even the opportunity playing field for NFL head coaching positions that only saw seven Black men assume the role by the time the rule was implemented, 83 years after the NFL was founded. Instead, a few teams have viewed it as a formality, and not as an honest way to expand their coaching search. When Davis and Gruden agreed on the head coaching change before the competition could even start, it was a potential violation of the Rooney Rule, which led the NFL to investigate.
The NFL’s investigation concluded the Raiders conducted “bonafide interviews” with minority candidates USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin and current Buffalo Bill offensive line coach Bobby Johnson. But a blind man with soap in his eyes could see Davis had his intentions set on hiring Gruden, and once he showed interest in the job, everyone else was fighting for second place. Gruden had so much influence around the sport, a beloved organization indulged in racial insensitivity just to ensure he bring him onboard.
Gruden has apologized for his racist comments about Smith and homophobic comments towards Goodell, explaining in an interview with ESPN that the emails were sent during the 2011 NFL lockout, and that he was frustrated at the commissioner and players’ union president for keeping people football away from the fans and the athletes. But Rod Graves, the executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance that helped establish the Rooney Rule, views it as more than an isolated incident. “It reveals that the journey for African Americans and other minorities in sports is riddled with irrepressible mindsets at the highest level,” he said in a searing statement released Sunday morning. There’s credence to Graves’s assessment, as this entire ordeal only emerged after the NFL was investigating the Washington Football Team (formerly known as the Washington Redskins) following allegations of sexual harassment from 15 former female employees of the team in July 2020.
While Allen and Gruden were sharing sexist wisecracks, the employees of the Washington Football Team he was in charge of were sharing crude messages about the physical appearance of their female coworkers. While Gruden was making racist comments about Smith, he was also heard on Monday Night Football inexplicably referring to Shane Vereen as one of the “best receiving Black backs in football.” If the NFL wasn’t an institution that outlawed peaceful protest, rarely elevated qualified Black people to head coaching positions, and normalized exploiting women cheerleaders, we would’ve all thought Gruden was just a successful coach.
Gruden won’t be the last, and the regularity of these revelations has to make even the casual NFL fan aware there is a good chance that there are terrible people responsible for their good time.