If Jon Gruden's only transgression was a racist comment, he'd probably still have his job

·6 min read
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden released a statement Monday announcing he had stepped down from his position following the New York Times' report the coach had frequently used racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments in emails dating back to 2011. (Rick Scuteri/The Associated Press - image credit)
Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden released a statement Monday announcing he had stepped down from his position following the New York Times' report the coach had frequently used racist, homophobic and misogynistic comments in emails dating back to 2011. (Rick Scuteri/The Associated Press - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

If the Jon Gruden email scandal had only contained one message, with one racist line about one person, the deposed head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders would probably still have his job.

Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2011 Gruden — then an ESPN analyst — wrote to then-Washington Football Team executive Bruce Allen, and called NFL Players' Association president DeMaurice Smith, "Dumboriss Smith." Later in the same sentence, Gruden wrote that Smith, who is Black, "has lips the size of michellin [sic] tires."

In some jobs, you can be outed as somebody who traffics in racist tropes one day, and return to work the next morning with minimal drama. A head coach in the NFL, where more than 70 per cent of players are Black, isn't one of those positions, and so Gruden embarked on some quick image rehab. He told reporters how little prejudice he harboured — not an ounce, bone or blade of racism, he said at various times.

Meanwhile, Black NFL legends like Tim Brown and Charles Woodson, who have each played under Gruden, spoke on the record about how not-racist their former coach is. NFL coach-turned NBC analyst Tony Dungy told Sunday Night Football's audience to accept the huffy apology Gruden offered after his team's 20-9 loss to Chicago. One current Raiders player, according to ESPN, offered Gruden absolution in the form of a hug.

Good for them. Especially the guy who hugged Gruden.

Wouldn't be me.

WATCH | Gruden resignation resurfaces questions about NFL's culture:

Not because I don't believe in forgiveness and second chances, and all the other benefits of doubts we in the sports media extend to white people after their racism flares up. (Google: Richie Incognito Redemption to see what I mean). But I can't forgive a person unless they've earned it, and can't stake my reputation on a white person just caught saying something racist. I don't know what else he's saying when he doesn't think Black folks can hear him.

Then on Monday night, the New York Times published more offensive emails between Gruden and Allen, sent over seven years, ending when he became Raiders coach in 2018. For the folks determined to see the best in Gruden, at least these messages didn't feature anti-black slurs.

But they were homophobic, a significant detail given that the league's only openly gay player, Carl Nassib, is on the Raiders' roster. Gruden called NFL commissioner Roger Goddell an "anti-football f****t," and then complained that the league had pressured the St. Louis Rams to "draft queers," an apparent reference to openly gay defensive end Michael Sam, picked by the Rams in 2014.

In these emails, Gruden also rails against female referees and concussion protocols, and suggests players, like Eric Reid, who demonstrated during pre-game anthems, should be fired. The message threads, sent and received from Allen's workplace email account, also included photos of topless women.

After trying to wait out the scandal this weekend, the second set of offensive messages prompted the Raiders, a franchise long obsessed with speed, to act with a quickness befitting the brand.

Gruden's resignation went public faster than Henry Ruggs III running a 40-yard dash. Faster than Bo Jackson going 91 yards against the Seahawks on Monday Night Football. Faster than Cliff Branch chasing down a pass from Jim Plunkett.

By halftime of the Colts-Ravens game, Gruden — in the fourth season of a 10-year, $100 million US contract — was jobless, and we're left to evaluate this scandal for what it is, and what it isn't.

Above all, it's a cautionary tale about discretion, etiquette and the digital workplace. If you litter your online conversations with racism and homophobia, you've just put all that intolerance on the record. If the sender or, in this case, the receiver, is using a corporate email address, the evidence against you will live for a long time on company servers. Gruden just learned an expensive lesson on the meaning of the acronym "NSFW."

NFL continues to champion 'race norming'

But it's not necessarily the event that will trigger a reckoning on systemic injustice in the NFL.

The message with the racist line about Smith surfaced during the league's investigation into workplace bullying and sexual harassment at the Washington Football Team. Given that probe's findings, it shouldn't surprise us that a long list of isms and phobias co-exist so easily in the brains and inboxes of the men, like Allen, who once ran the club. And so it can't shock us that Gruden felt comfortable airing offensive opinions in electronic conversation with Allen.

The league fined the WFT $10 million for allowing sexist workplace harassment to thrive, and the End Racism slogan still appears on helmets and in endzones this season.

But the league's lawyers in the ongoing concussion settlement continue to champion "race norming," which essentially handicaps the cognitive ability test scores of Black retirees applying for payouts. Under race-neutral testing, which many of the doctors administering the tests advocate, players like the late Carlton Haselrig qualify for compensation as part of the settlement. Race-norming those test scores reclassifies players who would otherwise qualify, leaving them uncompensated but still brain damaged.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

That type of deep-seated, systemic unfairness would exist even if Gruden had never spouted off in Allen's inbox, but the presence of more fundamental inequality doesn't make Gruden's language any less problematic.

This particular scandal isn't about free speech, or foisting "wokeness" — whatever that term has come to mean — on a league full of "real" men who are too tough to care about marginalized people's feelings. There's no single playbook for a situation like this, where somebody in a high-profile position violates decency and norms, but not the actual terms of their employment. The options range from stepping down out of a sense of embarrassment to riding out the surge of negative press, and staying on the job.

That second strategy has worked for any number of politicians caught smoking crack, donning blackface, or wearing brownface, and it would have worked for Gruden if his chief transgression was a racist comment about Smith. But the second set of emails went public, and now we're looking more skeptically at Gruden's whole track record.

We don't know for sure if racism tainted Gruden's coaching and personnel decisions, but we know that Marquette King is still seeking an NFL job. He's a Black punter whose 47.4-yard average ranked him sixth in the league in 2017. In 2018 Gruden cut him, citing a "personality" conflict."

We also know Gruden's Raiders included Incognito, a white offensive guard less famous for his play than for his racist bullying of teammate Jonathan Martin.

So we know which player Gruden thought deserved a spot on his team. If race motivated those choices, at least Gruden knew not to put it in writing.

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