Kevin Ellis: Emails reveal who NFL coach Jon Gruden really is

This commentary is by Kevin Ellis, a partner in Ellis Mills, a communications consulting firm in Montpelier. He is a member of the board of the Vermont Journalism Trust, the parent organization of VTDigger.

Jon Gruden has resigned as the coach of the Las Vegas Raiders in the National Football League. The resignation took place after the discovery that Gruden sent many racist and sexist emails to another NFL executive. 

Gruden sent the emails to a friend, Bruce Allen, who was president of something called the Washington Football Team, itself a team born under the racist moniker of “Redskins.’’ That team was founded by notorious racist George Preston Marshall, who forbade the hiring of black players.

In the emails between 2010 and 2018, Gruden called the commissioner of the NFL an “anti-football pussy’’ for being concerned about concussions to players and allowing female referees. He described DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL players union, as having “lips the size of Michelin tires.’’ That’s the soft stuff. The language was so bad that The New York Times could not bring itself to spell out the words. 

Like the worst college frat bros, Gruden and Allen exchanged photos of naked cheerleaders working for the Washington football team. He referred to a gay football player as a “queer.’’

Gruden, who makes about $10 million a year, actually hit “send’’ on the emails while working as a commentator on “ABC Monday Night Football.” He was later hired as the coach of the Raiders. 

A lot is going on here. So let’s make a list:

  1. Gruden’s remarks reveal the dark underbelly of the hyper-masculine, xenophobic and racist NFL hierarchy. This is a private club of mostly white male rich men from industry who bought an NFL franchise as a play-toy. These guys like to go down to the locker room after the game and hang with their players. Then they dismiss those players once they are injured and no longer of use. And by the way — Congress has exempted the NFL from antitrust laws.
  2. Ironically, the Gruden controversy involved the Raiders franchise, which has won Super Bowls AND broke all sorts of barriers. The late owner Al Davis hired the NFL’s first black head coach, its first Hispanic head coach, and won two Super Bowls with Jim Plunkett, a Mexican-American quarterback. Davis didn’t care who you were. He just wanted to win. When Davis died, his son took over the team.
  3. Gruden has always been a bully. Watch him miked up on YouTube and you can see how he oozes arrogance and entitlement. He thinks it’s fine to berate a referee. Like most NFL coaches, he thought he was above it all. He often brags about how little sleep he gets as if that is some kind of badge of toughness.
  4. Gruden was just saying what he was taught from the day he started playing and coaching football. It is a supremely macho game that still thinks injuries are for the weak and concussions should be ignored. The game’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, dealt with concussions and sexual assault among players only after being forced by public opinion. In Washington, D.C., the NFL has a team that is so abusive and toxic that a league-ordered investigation has led to monitoring of its HR department. The owner of the team is a telecom magnate who is so abusive that he was forced to give up control of the team. The league has still not released the results of the Washington Football Team investigation, which snared Gruden.

The Gruden comments that got him fired were not even the core of the NFL investigation. There is more to come. And I guarantee you that the Gruden emails are a result of someone from the NFL leaking the information about Gruden to protect worse behavior by someone else. 

The investigation is being hushed up thus far by the league in hopes of dampening the outrage that is sure to come. 

I played football through high school and one year in college. At its best, the game is the best teacher of life lessons. When you are in the huddle and it's 20 degrees and raining, you look into the eyes of your teammates and understand who wants to keep going. It tests you. Perseverance, mental toughness, discipline are taught when you play football. And some great, role-model coaches have changed lives, including mine. 

At its worst, football is a corrupt, dangerous and toxic corporate business that trades on the labor of its workers and tosses them on the trash pile when they are finished. This is a business that still employs scantily-clad, badly paid “cheerleaders’’ as props to lure the beer-drinking guys to the games. 

There is one more terrible aspect to the Gruden scandal. Like all the other men who run their mouths and hit send when they should shut up, Gruden uttered the usual non-apology apology. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body,’’ he said. 

That’s what all the racists say. They still don’t get it. 

A friend said to me that Gruden must have missed the last 40 years of evolving American culture, or at least the last 10. That’s true. Gruden, like most NFL coaches, treats the game as a religion that permits them to ignore civic and family responsibilities. 

Some will defend Gruden as a tough coach who acted in the best tradition of men like the famous coach Vince Lombardi. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lombardi talked about love for his players and wept openly when he had to let one go. And they loved him back.

Jon Gruden now has a choice to make, like all men who have been the beneficiaries of a racist, hyper-masculine, unequal business structure. He can look inward and ask the questions that lead him to become a better person or he can ignore the criticisms and continue on in his detached, rarified bubble of wealth and denial. Let’s hope he decides on the former and urges the NFL to do the same. 

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