It is worth keeping in mind, as disgraced now-former Raiders coach Jon Gruden careens into the maelstrom of American political discourse in the year 2021, that the horrific comments he made in emails a decade ago would have gotten him run out of the sport back then, too. In our current moment, whenever we discover that something terrible exists just below the surface of a (relatively) benign public figure, the conversation immediately veers into fights about cancel culture and mob mentality and every other bit of discourse that makes you want to hide under a chair.
But let’s not take that too far. We weren’t using the phrase “cancel culture” a decade ago, when Gruden sent emails calling NFL commissioner Roger Goodell a gay slur and deriding female referees, gay former player Michael Sam, and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in racist terms. But had those emails come out back then, there probably would have been even less debate about his fate than there is now. An asshole ten years ago looks a lot like an asshole now.
Gruden’s messages were discovered as a by-product of an ongoing investigation into the Washington Football Team, specifically the workplace culture that Daniel Snyder had allowed to fester over two decades of owning the team. That Gruden was not the focus of the probe has led some of his defenders, as quiet as they are right now, to argue that he is collateral damage; that this wasn’t even supposed to be about him. But of course, it is about him just as it is about Snyder: It is about the culture that allowed both men free rein, a culture in which Gruden could send topless emails of Washington cheerleaders to top team executives (as well as the founder of Hooters, in case you were wondering what sort of circles NFL coaches run around in). As the Washington Post reported last year in a story that helped spark the NFL’s investigation in the first place, Snyder also advised a female team employee that “she join his close friend in a hotel room so they ‘could get to know each other better.’” Gruden and Snyder were atop the NFL food chain because men like Gruden and Snyder always are. (Snyder actually hired Gruden’s brother Jay to coach his team in 2014.) This is what the NFL has always been. The question now is how much the inquiry, run by the NFL, after all, will be allowed to uncover.
The timing of the Gruden emails is important. Though Gruden was in the third year of a ten-year, $100 million contract as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders when he resigned on Monday night, you can make a strong argument that he was more powerful a decade ago than he is today. Until Monday, he was just another football coach — a high-profile one, to be sure, but still just one of 32 schmoes staring at game film and ignoring their family all day, like the rest of them. But in 2012, Jon Gruden, as much as anyone on the field, was the face of the NFL. He was a former Super Bowl–winning coach who had the most high-profile gig in the sport: calling Monday Night Football. (ESPN executive vice-president Norby Williamson, upon his hiring, said Gruden had “alpha-male energy.”) He was an instant star at ESPN, developing spinoff projects like Jon Gruden’s QB Camp (in which rookie quarterbacks, like future MVP Patrick Mahomes, had to “learn” from Gruden), and he quickly became the highest-paid employee at the network. When he announced in 2017 that he was leaving to coach the Raiders, it was considered a surprise. Gruden seemed to have everything he wanted at ESPN: power, influence, and fame, without the pesky inconveniences of having to win football games anymore. Coaching might have been a step down.
It’s in this context that Gruden’s emails should be considered. He wasn’t sending them as a coach: He was sending them as the signature media personality of the NFL. This says a lot about ESPN — the network is sliding by today more than it should, especially considering the network’s own internal culture issues — but it says even more about the world of the league. Gruden’s voice thundered while he was at ESPN, and his emails reveal his understanding of the power he wielded. You do not send emails of this sort in 2012, 2017, or now, if you fear that the recipient will leak them; you know they fear you enough not to. (It helped that the man on the receiving end of the messages, former Washington general manager Bruce Allen, was the head of the organization under investigation in the first place; Gruden surely didn’t expect much pushback from him.) It is telling, and depressing, that it took an investigation for them to come out. It might be even more distressing that there’s a widespread suspicion that the emails were not released to the Times because of their repulsive content, but because some of that repulsive content was directed at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. There’s a legitimate question here. What’s more upsetting to the NFL: that Gruden used a racist phrase to describe the head of the players union, or that he called Goodell a homophobic slur? If he had just done the former, would we ever know about any of this? The answer is uncomfortable to consider.
Which is why the only path out of this now, for Goodell and the rest of the NFL, is to publish the full investigation, 9/11 Commission–style. Gruden deserves everything he’s getting, but his role in all this is a small piece of the larger puzzle. Gruden cannot be allowed to be the lone, or even the primary, takeaway from the Washington Football Team story, which, it’s becoming increasingly clear, is really about the entire culture of the NFL rather than just one team. You want to know what the NFL is really like? The Gruden emails — again, sent by one of the most powerful figures in the league, without the slightest worry of reproach, to top-ranking NFL officials at their corporate email addresses — are the opening pages of the entire story, but they are only that. The focus on Jon Gruden is understandable and justified: Assholes are assholes. But he’s not the whole game. We, as fans, as NFL consumers, as human beings, can’t let the NFL pretend that he is.