What Football Coach Jon Gruden's Resignation Teaches Us About Racism--and Anti-Racism

Although the Raiders' former head coach seems exceptionally awful, he probably isn't--and learning this is how we get to another place where white men don't write and enforce the rules

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Earlier this week, we learned that racism in the NFL is alive and well—surprise! Jon Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders following a leaked series of emails in which he expressed every bigotry in the book. You name a group, Gruden seems to have contempt for it. But he also despises white men who don’t reflect his own um, values.

The emails are part of a more extensive trove of 650,000 messages sent and received by numerous people involved in an investigation into workplace misconduct at The Washington Football Team. Forty WFT employees have filed complaints. But what is more illuminating is this. Like many white people, Gruden seems to believe that he can be as hateful as he wants in private or casual conversations and still maintain to the public that, as he put it, he does “not `have a racist bone’ in his body.”

This statement is bizarre, risible, and utterly commonplace. But let’s presume that Gruden believes it: what does it teach us about racism?

Kurt Streeter of the New York Times points to the more significant structural issues that this scandal illuminates. He argues that Gruden’s toxic presence reveals the NFL’s efforts to dismantle bigotry in the sport as fundamentally hypocritical. To Streeter, Gruden is proof-positive that the NFL persists in advertising itself as something it is not. “The league can write as many antiracism slogans in end zones and add as many rainbows to its social media accounts as it wants,” Streeter writes,

but its hypocrisy is evident in the actions of its decision makers.

Gruden has long been part of the league’s widespread clique of power brokers, esteemed for his coaching, leadership and charisma.

That’s why this matters.

The emails he shared with Bruce Allen, a longtime N.F.L. team executive, over a span of nearly a decade underscore that behind the league’s displays of change a stiff undercurrent of resentment has kept the sport from truly evolving.

I don't see it this way. As despicable as Gruden’s words and sentiments were, they do not accurately portray the depth of football’s problems with bigotry and bullying or the NFL’s belated efforts to address them. Yes, there is a structural problem: African-American kids are exploited and abused, and toxic masculinity is part of the game at every level of football. But, unfortunately, the NFL is a huge ship to turn, and antiracism is a long and frustrating process in every institution that engages it.

However, failures may show that the process, however slowly, is working to illuminate the scope of the problem that the NFL must address and a new willingness to endure the embarrassment of the revelations that must accompany true transformation.

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For those who don’t follow the game, Gruden is a football genius who has moved fluidly between coaching and the broadcast booth. He was a boy wonder back when he guided the Philadelphia Eagles offense and was the youngest head coach to win the Super Bowl in 2003 (with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.)

Simultaneously, Gruden had a reputation as a nasty man to work for and with. People don’t just begin spilling insults and expletives in advanced middle age, and no one uses the n-word just once. My point? White people do these things routinely around other white people who silently agree to, um, keep it in the family.

Gruden never intended those emails to be read by anyone but their recipients, other white men. So this is another thing worth emphasizing: racist behavior continues because other white people, even those offended by it, tacitly agree to accommodate it.

Second, I think Streeter misses why many white people don’t step forward or intervene, a dynamic revealed in Gruden’s attacks on other white men. What all of us have seen in workplaces that attempt to change a racist culture is that, when challenged, powerful people become more strident and aggressive. This intensification of rage, and the bullying behavior that accompanies it, may be what Streeter means by the “stiff undercurrent of resentment.” Still, it is not specific to football: it happens in universities, corporations, media companies—anywhere that authority is shifting away from those who have traditionally hoarded it.

Furthermore, the uncovering of the Gruden emails strikes me as a success, not a failure. The result is that the NFL pulled the rug out from under one of its marquee coaches rather than continuing to cover up Gruden’s—not just transgressive, but illegal—speech. Of course, ugly episodes are part of transformative change, but what an institution does in response is what matters, not the revelation itself. In this case, the NFL rejected the half-measures those of us in changing institutions too often see when toxicity becomes unavoidably visible.

Racism is part of the game’s history, and the NFL needs to account for that past. Once denied the opportunity to compete because of segregation, African American players are now in the majority on all NFL rosters. Depending on which site you look at (and they are so unreliable, I am not going to link them), between 57 and 70 percent of the men playing in the NFL are Black.

But these players have remained under the thumb of mostly white head coaches and an all-white ownership structure. Players come up in a hyper-masculine system where head football coaches are expected to dominate, be aggressive, and command obedience.

In my experience, there is a significant percentage of these men, at all levels of the game, whose behavior and speech mirrors some version of Gruden’s emails. Which of us who have followed football closely, or talked honestly to the football players we teach, is shocked by Gruden’s emails? Which of us has heard colleagues well-known for verbal nastiness similar to Gruden’s do not understand how long it has gone on and how many people have suffered from it before someone in authority acts?

A final aspect of this case we can learn from is what journalists are not reporting thoroughly: bigotry is often generational. Who received Gruden’s emails? Bruce Allen, the son of legendary Washington coach George Allen. And who is Bruce Allen’s brother? Former Senator George F. Allen. You may recall Allen as the man who lost his bid for re-election in 2006 after he referred to an opposition campaign worker with a racial slur: the film circulated on a new social media app called YouTube, and bloggers pushed it until election day. Alternative media coverage revealed a story silenced for years by political journalists: Allen’s long history of racism and his associations with organized white supremacists.

You have to wonder what went on in the Allen family, don’t you? But to return to Gruden: it doesn’t matter that he is a horrible person on a certain level. What matters is that, as an employee, he did not see it as his job to support equity and anti-discrimination policies that the league was implementing, whether he liked them or not.

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Instead, Gruden undermined these policies. He mocked initiatives to open jobs to women. He derided the NFL front office for encouraging a team to draft an openly gay player. He referred to men (including President Joe Biden) whose decisions he disagreed with as “faggots” and “pussies.” He derided Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. He said that a man’s mouth—consistent with not just African-American, but human, standards of beauty—was ugly and then tried to explain it away by saying that he meant that the man was a liar. Which explains everything, since calling a man a liar just because you disagree with him is…fine?

Gruden’s not your normal cancel culture case, although I am sure voices on the right will frame it that way. It’s bigger than that. It’s a template for what is to come if multi-million dollar companies continue, in the absence of federal civil rights legislation, to insist on equitable, respectful workplaces.

Get used to it.

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Short takes:

  • I know that everyone hates Max Boot and that adding him to my newsletter is risky. But in yesterday’s WaPo, he asked a question I have seen nowhere else: why is anyone even mentioning, much less celebrating, Fox News’s 25th anniversary? These are the people who gave us the Tea Party and Donald Trump—while they made disinformation and the anti-vaxxer movement cool. (October 12, 2021)

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