Jon Gruden has been one of the most recognizable characters in professional football for the past twenty years. From his rise to stardom as the then-youngest head coach to win the Super Bowl in 2002 to his long-tenured stint on ESPN as a broadcaster and analyst on Monday Night Football, becoming the highest paid personality at ESPN at the time, Gruden has developed into a figure that virtually all football fans know.
The 2021 NFL season marks the fourth year of an unprecedented 10-year, $100 million contract that Gruden signed in January 2018 with the newly relocated Las Vegas Raiders to bring him back to coaching after nearly a decade working as a television analyst. The Raiders have only made the playoffs four times since 2000, with the most recent appearance coming in 2016, though their first two appearances came under Gruden’s watch as coach of the Raiders from 1998 until 2001. In his three seasons since coming back to the Raiders, though, Gruden has yet to finish a season above .500. And after just five weeks and a 3-2 record, Gruden resigned as head coach last Monday, Oct. 11.
Gruden’s resignation has nothing to do with his team’s performance, however. Rather, it comes at the heels of a disastrous and utterly repulsive series of racist, misogynistic and homophobic emails that were leaked as a part of a months-long investigation into the toxic work environment at the Washington franchise, now known as the Washington Football Team.
As a part of the investigation into Washington’s organization, the NFL has been examining over 650,000 emails sent and received by employees that relate to the workplace misconduct present within the franchise. Gruden’s emails in question were uncovered by this report and leaked to the media, the first of which was reported Friday, Oct. 8 by the Wall Street Journal.
The first leaked email was written on July 21, 2011, at which time Gruden was employed as a broadcaster for ESPN. Writing to Washington’s then-president Bruce Allen, who was fired following the 2019 season, Gruden made racially disparaging comments about DeMaurice Smith, the Executive Director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), stating that “Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin [sic] tires.”
The email came during a contentious time in which the NFL was working to resolve a lockout that threatened the upcoming season. On the specific date that the email was sent, NFL owners had voted to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement, but the players — led by Smith — opted not to vote on it immediately, claiming other outstanding issues that the union was still fighting to resolve. In an interview with Gruden immediately after the initial leak, Gruden stated that he was upset at the time because of the way the lockout was shaping up and didn’t trust the direction that the players were headed. However, Gruden states that he can’t specifically recall writing the email, though he apologized and said he will “certainly … take accountability for it if it was on my email.”
Gruden also asserted that his comments were not racially charged, as he claims to refer to people who he believes to be lying as having “rubber lips.” Said Gruden: “I don’t think he’s dumb. I don’t think he’s a liar. I don’t have a racial bone in my body, and I’ve proven that for 58 years.” In a later comment, Gruden continued this sentiment by saying, “I never had a blade of racism in me. I was just pissed and used a terrible way to insult a guy.” Gruden claims to have reached out to Smith to apologize on the day that the report was first leaked, and he spoke to Raiders players Friday morning before the article was published.
Smith, who has been the Executive Director of the NFLPA since 2009, stated that Gruden’s comments reflect the difficult obstacles Black people must face as they advance in their careers. “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,” said Smith. “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.” The leak was released the same day that Smith was up for re-election, which he won for his final term as Executive Director.
A public statement from the NFL called Gruden’s email “appalling, abhorrent and wholly contrary to the NFL’s values.” Raiders owner Mark Davis stated that it was “disturbing and not what the Raiders stand for.”
At the time of the leak, the NFL said that they were reviewing Gruden and exploring possibilities for disciplinary action. Nevertheless, Gruden was still allowed to coach in the Raiders’ game Sunday against the Chicago Bears, just two days after the first email was leaked. The 20-9 loss would prove to be Gruden’s final game with the Raiders, however, and likely his final game as an NFL head coach. Gruden resigned on Monday, Oct. 11 following a New York Times article that detailed more leaked emails, in which he made homophobic and misogynistic remarks.
In interviews following the initial WSJ release, Gruden estimated that about 5-7 of his other emails were flagged by the league for investigation. He also alluded to using vulgar language to disparage NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Gruden clearly anticipated that the first release was just the tip of the iceberg, and he was certainly correct.
The emails released by the New York Times span a seven-year period ending in early 2018. In the emails, all of which were also sent to Allen as the initial release was, Gruden deployed a deplorable mixture of sickeningly harmful language directed at many of the league’s most significant changes.
In the emails, Gruden condemned the emergence of women as referees, mocking the hiring of Sarah Thomas, the NFL’s first female referee. He called Goodell a “f****t” and a “clueless anti football p***y” for his emphasis on player safety, believing he was scaring parents away from letting their children play football. He wrote that Goodell should not have pressured then-Rams head coach Jeff Fisher to draft “queers,” referring to Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL who was drafted by the Rams in 2014. (Fisher denied being pressured by the league to draft Sam.) Gruden denounced players protesting the national anthem and stated that safety Eric Reid, a close friend of Colin Kaepernick and a vocal leader of the movement in its early stages, should be fired. Gruden also exchanged emails with Allen and other men that included photos of women wearing only bikini bottoms — one of the photos included two of Washington’s cheerleaders. In other emails, Gruden ridiculed Caitlyn Jenner, criticized a Congressional bill created to force Washington to change its name and attacked Obama during his 2012 re-election campaign, calling Joe Biden a “nervous clueless p***y.”
Though he wasn’t technically in the NFL at the time the emails were sent, as all the emails were sent during his time working for ESPN, Gruden was still a highly respected and influential voice within the league at the time, and his comments showcase an inexcusable display of bigotry.
The Raiders themselves have a history as a forward-thinking franchise in their efforts to foster diversity and inclusion. Al Davis, who coached and later became principal owner of the Raiders and is the father of current owner Mark Davis, refused to play in Mobile, Alabama in 1963 because of the state’s segregation laws. Davis hired the NFL’s first Black coach in Art Shell, the NFL’s first Latino quarterback and second Latino head coach in Tom Flores, the NFL’s first female executive in Amy Trask and the current team has the NFL’s first openly gay player on an active roster in Carl Nassib, who came out at the beginning of this season and took a personal day away from the team following Gruden’s resignation. To keep Gruden as their head coach after his offensive comments were made public would have been contradictory to everything the Raiders have stood for virtually since their inception.
Special teams coach Rich Bisaccia has been promoted to interim head coach in the meantime. It is unclear whether there will be a settlement for the 12 regular season games and six seasons that remain on Gruden’s deal, or if Gruden will be forced to forfeit his remaining salary. The franchise is short on cash after relocating from Oakland to Vegas in 2019 and missing out on ticket revenues in the Covid-impacted 2020 season, so this could be considered as somewhat of a positive from a financial perspective. Gruden was the primary decision maker for the entire team, however, holding full control of football operations and essentially serving as both head coach and general manager. In just four years, he completely turned over the front office, coaching staff and much of the 53-man roster to build a team catered to his style as a coach. Though they have a winning record, the Raiders have a tough task ahead of them given Gruden’s sudden and dramatic departure.
More broadly, the emails provide a stark look into the NFL culture that has long been scrutinized as a hypermasculine, toxic environment. What’s more telling is that for Gruden to send the emails that he did using the language that he chose to employ, he had to feel confident that the recipients would be comfortable receiving such messages. Gruden is by no means an outlier in this situation. There certainly are more emails containing similar sentiments that have yet to be released. Shockingly, however, the NFL has stated that they have no plans to release any other emails pertaining to the Washington investigation. They have claimed that no other current team or league employees sent emails containing language similar to those sent by Gruden. After a full ten-month long investigation including over 650,000 documents that were reviewed, the only person to be held accountable and lose their job is the coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.
Attorneys representing 40 former Washington Football Team employees have released a statement calling for Goodell to release a written report or explain why the NFL is seemingly intent on protecting Washington and their owner Dan Snyder. The NFLPA has made a similar call for action, petitioning the league to release every email from the investigation. Goodell has yet to make a statement on the most pressing issue currently facing the NFL. The emails are in direct opposition to the league’s public condemnation of racism and sexism and its promises to promote a more inclusive environment. NFL leaders now have a critical responsibility to exert proper leadership for the sake of the league’s future.