IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

NFL coach Jon Gruden's emails highlight a much bigger problem

Gruden's emails reveal a rot deeper than the racist, sexist, homophobic musings of one jackass.
Image: Jon Gruden
Former Las Vegas Raiders Jon Gruden looks on in the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Sep.19, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.Justin K. Aller / Getty Images; MSNBC

Just days ago, Jon Gruden seemed unassailable, assumedly untouchable. But as of Monday, he resigned as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. A favorite of Vegas franchise owner Mark Davis, he was in year four of a mammoth 10-year contract. The team was actually winning this season, and most critically, this was the organization’s ballyhooed first year in Las Vegas, breaking in a new multibillion-dollar stadium with its high-profile coach leading the way.

This document dump of emails sent over a seven-year period displays a pattern.

But none of this helped the former coach following the New York Times revelations of a trove of emails seeped in racism, sexism and homophobia. Emails showed Gruden insulting NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell with a homophobic slur and mocking the league’s push to prevent concussions. (Keep in mind that Gruden never played in the NFL himself; as a head coach, he was in charge of managing the flow of concussions without ever having had to put himself at risk.)

The emails exposed the NFL as a multibillion-dollar leviathan with a red, brightly flashing Achilles' heel. The league’s weak spot is precisely how the powers that be speak about players behind closed doors. There is a racial contradiction in the NFL that we pretend isn’t staring us in the face. Gruden picked at that contradiction with his sophomoric bigotry — and to say this is a problem with one man’s conduct is to miss the larger point.

Gruden’s missives were part of the NFL’s investigation into the culture of sexual harassment in the Washington Football Team organization. Gruden’s portion of these emails — the only ones the public has seen, perhaps just the first drop in the bucket — also included his beliefs that the NFL shouldn’t be compelled to draft “queers” and that it should fire safety Eric Reid for taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality.

Even if Gruden was not working directly for the NFL at the time he sent these emails, he was the prime-time voice of ESPN's "Monday Night Football" and a former Super Bowl-winning coach: a powerful figure even among the power brokers of the NFL's elite.

Unlike over the weekend, when Gruden — in retrospect quite brazenly — said an email in which he used a racist trope to describe NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith was just a one-time offense, this document dump of emails sent over a seven-year period displays a pattern. All the NFL heads who rallied around Gruden over the weekend, supporting his statement that he did not have “a blade of racism” in him, are looking remarkably foolish.

The only person in the NFL world who seemed to get the significance from jump was Smith, who told The Wall Street Journal when only the email targeting him was being discussed, "This is a thick skin job for someone with dark skin, just like it always has been for many people who look like me and work in corporate America."

"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," he said. "I’m sorry my family has to see something like this but I would rather they know. I will not let it define me."

Gruden’s emails reveal a rot so much deeper and systemic than the racist, sexist and homophobic musings of one random jackass.

The NFL and the Raiders had to jettison Gruden not only because of his offensive statements, but also because these messages reveal how powerful people in the league and their sponsors think and talk about the players and the issues that have swirled around the league in recent years. Gruden did much of his writing to Bruce Allen, the former president of the Washington Football Team (which at the time had a racist slur for Native Americans as its name) and the brother of former Virginia Gov. George Allen, who saw his senatorial and presidential hopes shattered after using a racial slur against an opponent’s campaign operative (it’s like a family tree of racism). The range of offensive emails also went to various restaurant chain owners — think the co-founder of Hooters — and NFL sponsors.

There’s also the fact that we have only seen a portion of the emails, and we certainly haven’t seen what replies to his musings are out there somewhere, waiting to be leaked. The point is that Gruden’s emails reveal a rot so much deeper and systemic than the racist, sexist and homophobic musings of one random jackass. It shows how the powers that be revel in the ugliest dynamics of their sport. And there will certainly be more emails to come.

The NFL is made up primarily of Black labor — 70 percent of players are Black — while the ownership ranks and the ranks of team executives are almost exclusively white. We watch the athletic genius of Black athletes and the destruction of Black bodies, while staggering profits accrue for the residents of the owners’ boxes, staring down upon the fields like a collection of hunched-over Caesars.

This setup — and the need for both a racial and labor discipline — is a powder keg for the kind of discontent that could tear the league apart. Fear of that happening is why we cannot allow Gruden to remain a part of this league.

Former NFL player Michael Bennett described the NFL as “a segregated, not an integrated, business” precisely because it is segregated between Black labor and white franchise ownership. On one side of this Jim Crow-like operating procedure are people like Gruden, Bruce Allen and others in positions of power who talk to each other and think similar thoughts. How else to explain the low numbers of Black executives and head coaches in the so-called thinking jobs? That branch of the NFL’s labor tree might as well come with its own water fountain.

It’s the same racism and contempt for players that has had NFL management willing to accept the practice of race-norming as a part of concussion settlements, suppress science on brain injuries and collude against Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the anthem to protest racism and police violence.

Going forward, the NFL really has two choices.

It can have a reckoning and demand confirmation from Goodell that the league will hire more Black executives, general managers and head coaches and acknowledge that comments like Gruden’s are intrinsically connected to why this league is so retrograde in its hiring practices.

Or the league can be content with some banal statements and hope that thrilling games like Monday night’s brain-melter between the Baltimore Ravens and Indianapolis Colts capture the public’s attention to the extent that it allows them to skate.

If the NFL chooses the latter, it is also choosing a future defined by confrontation. If the rollout of Gruden defenders on Sunday before the big email drop is any indication, we are probably looking at stormy skies ahead. The modern-day Caesars would be wise to change course. Empires far grander than the NFL's have crashed and burned for less.