As much as the NFL loves to present itself as diverse, inclusive, proactive and forward-thinking, the troubling case of Jon Gruden shows us — once again — that the league is a long way from achieving any of that.
A major reason why the NFL can't get there: so many of the bosses don't believe in the benefits of having a diverse set of leaders. The nearly all-white supermajority of NFL owners — there are two people of color who have significant ownership interests across the 32 teams — continues to hire white decision-makers most of the time.
In the NFL, 75% of players are people of color. Head coaches? Only 15% people of color — five of 32. Senior administrative positions on those teams? Down to 18% in 2020.
These figures are from the 2020 TIDES Racial and Gender Report Card and you can see all the F's and D's and C-minus grades there for the NFL's hiring practices.
If the league wants to eradicate Neanderthal thinking like Gruden's, start at the top. The more people of color and women in power within the NFL hierarchy, the more the good ol' boy network is put on notice. Add diverse talent, NFL owners, if you truly want to create the type of progressive culture you are seeking.
Gruden felt comfortable enough on an e-mail string that included former Washington executive — and old friend — Bruce Allen that he was able to reveal his true character. From 2011 to 2018, while he was an ESPN analyst, Gruden made offensive remarks about Black people, gay people, women and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell while also distributing pornographic material. This led to Gruden resigning as Las Vegas Raiders coach on Monday. In a statement, Gruden said he didn't want to be a distraction and didn't mean to hurt anyone.
Well, Gruden has become a distraction for the entire league. These e-mails are among 650,000 that have been reviewed during an investigation of the toxic workplace environment within the Washington Football Team under owner Dan Snyder. It would behoove a league yearning for fairness and equality to be transparent here and release the report. What's included in some of those other e-mails? Are there more Grudens out there?
Gruden's comments aren't just ignorant, they reflect a pattern of behavior that should not be tolerated. This began on Friday when the Wall Street Journal reported that, in a 2011 e-mail to Allen, Gruden wrote that DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, "has lips the size of michellin [sic] tires." An offensive racial trope, indeed.
This was the first case I've seen Gruden say or write something insensitive and, honestly, I was willing to pay it little attention. One e-mail written 10 years ago was not going to change my opinion of someone who forged a career as a quarterback whisperer during his time as a coach and an ESPN television analyst.
That was before Monday. A New York Times report revealed several more incriminating e-mails that revealed a different side of Gruden. He complained about the proliferation of female referees. He charged Goodell with pressuring the Rams to draft Michael Sam, a gay player, in 2014. He didn't like the league's attempts to reduce concussions. He wanted Eric Reid, who demonstrated during national anthems, to be fired.
Good grief. This man hit for the cycle of insensitivity. And he had a confidant in Allen, which is concerning. How many more of these exchanges take place within the NFL?
Gruden was not the man we thought he was, but this should not be the end of him. I don't fully subscribe to the cancel culture in that everyone should be fired with every misstep. And people deserve second chances. Gruden might never get a coaching job again, but anyone can produce a podcast these days.
What's more important now is the NFL learning from this moment, Gruden and the Washington investigation, and moving forward with change. Will great embarrassment finally be the impetus for better hiring?
Smith should be able to sit at the negotiating table and not feel like he's being looked down upon because of his race. Women should be able to pursue coaching, refereeing and front office jobs free from harassment. A player should be able to be comfortable with his sexuality while contributing to a winning team. And players should be able to express themselves in support of worthy causes.
Yet the exchanges between Gruden and Allen suggest that the wrong people too often end up with power.