As NFL tries to reshape its culture, Jon Gruden’s words canceled himself from it

In the end, it was going to be nearly impossible for Jon Gruden to explain it all away.

A person can spin only so many explanations of harmless inside jokes between friends. And there are only so many times you can declare a personal measuring of your own moral code before people start to question the person doing the counting.

After last week’s email leak to The Wall Street Journal, Gruden assessed that he didn’t have “an ounce of racism” inside him. Then came Monday night’s correspondence dump to The New York Times, and suddenly a new metric became necessary when it came to Gruden’s views on anti-gay sentiment and misogyny.

If you haven’t figured it out, this is not the kind of math the NFL wants swirling around a $100 million coach. It’s not good for the league. It’s not good for the Las Vegas Raiders. Most of all, it’s not good for the wide audience of human beings who are being courted by an NFL that is incrementally shaping a more inclusive culture.

Aug 21, 2021; Inglewood, California, USA; Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden gestures to referees during the third quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports
Jon Gruden's resignation on Monday night happened about an hour after The New York Times published a report on his emails. (Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY Sports)

That’s why Gruden had to go on Monday, whether it was via his chosen resignation or a firing that seemed inevitable. Rather than waiting for Raiders owner Mark Davis to make the decision for him, Gruden stepped down from his job amid an onslaught of revelations that appeared unlikely to relent until the coach ultimately did.

In some ways this is only the beginning. It was just another loaded exchange in a political and culture war that has simultaneously consumed and transcended sports. That much was guaranteed when The New York Times included details about Gruden’s emails through anti-gay and misogynistic lenses and his criticisms of former President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Joe Biden.

That’s more than enough to make Gruden’s end in Las Vegas a rallying point in the never-ending battle of right versus left, Red versus Blue, America the memory versus America the reality. You can layer the NFL in that last debate, too. Something along the lines of what pro football culture once was versus what pro football is trying to become.

In the middle of it all, there will be an argument of whether Jon Gruden was a victim of cancel culture or a victim of himself. One thing can’t be denied about the email exchanges that are now being exposed: He spent years bashing the league’s efforts at adjusting to social change, then willfully inserted himself into the middle of that busy intersection despite what appears to have been a deep well of disapproval for it.

What ultimately unfolded was a week when Gruden used his words to cast himself as a symbol of what professional football should be right now — only to have that representation pressed against emails that painted him as a relic of what professional football can’t be anymore.

Detractors will say this is a prime example of the softening of the sports we watch and the world we inhabit. That people should simply be tougher and get over their feelings. That NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith shouldn’t have been offended about a racist trope about his lips in Gruden’s email because it happened 10 years ago. Or that Raiders defensive end Carl Nassibthe NFL’s first openly active gay player — shouldn’t be offended by Gruden repeatedly using anti-gay terminology in emails, or remarking that commissioner Roger Goodell shouldn’t have pressured former Rams coach Jeff Fisher to draft “queers” (a reference to the Rams drafting Michael Sam, who was the league’s first openly gay draft choice in 2014).

What matters to the NFL’s future is that all of this is a representation of what the league doesn’t want to be. And part of distancing itself from that identity means uncoupling from the powerful people who continue to define it. For a swath of years, right up to his signing of a lottery-ticket contract with the Raiders in 2018, Gruden’s own words framed him as wielding the kind of attitudes that become more of an anchor against progress than an engine pushing toward it. Not just one joke, or one phrase or one sentence. Not just one email, but many.

To steal a line from Maya Angelou, when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. Or in the case of Jon Gruden: the second time, third time, fourth time — until there is nothing left to explain but a statement of resignation.