Jon Gruden said 'far worse things' without repercussions because NFL culture tolerated it

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With shock, Simeon Rice, a retired defensive end who played for Jon Gruden, has read about his former coach’s emails that included racist, homophobic and misogynistic language and led him to resign as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday.

“He said far worse things as a head coach, trust me,’’ said Rice, who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under Gruden from 2001 to 2006.

Though Rice declined to say what came out of Gruden’s mouth, the three-time Pro Bowl selection said some of Gruden's most unforgettable remarks came before the Buccaneers left Tampa for the 2003 Super Bowl in San Diego.

“We were getting ready to play one of the biggest games of our life and he said something that I’m not going to repeat, that doesn’t need to be said. And I was like, ‘Wow, how does that get us ready for a game? What? That’s the craziest thing I ever heard.’ ”

Now, almost two decades after the Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders 48-21 to win Super Bowl XXXVII, players and coaches who worked alongside Gruden as far back as 1990 have different impressions of the man.

Jon Gruden shown as coach of the Buccaneers, a position he held from the 2002 season through 2008.
Jon Gruden shown as coach of the Buccaneers, a position he held from the 2002 season through 2008.

Some said they never heard the once-celebrated coach use offensive words. Others said they were not surprised to read about those emails this week. And others, like Rice, have vivid recollections of Gruden tossing around inflammatory language – including an allegation from one player that Gruden used the n-word.

Few, though, expressed disgust or outrage at Gruden. On the contrary, they said slurs have been an accepted part of the NFL's underbelly, tolerated by those they target.

“All of our coaches all talked like that,’’ Rice said. “The only one who didn’t talk like that was my Christian coach, Lou Tepper, (at the University of Illinois). But I couldn’t stand Coach Lou Tepper. How about that?’’

In a brief news conference after the Raiders lost to the Chicago Bears last Sunday, when the only email that had surfaced included a racial trope directed at NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, Gruden said, "I’m not a racist. I can’t tell you how sick I am. I apologize again to De Smith. … I had no racial intention with those remarks at all. I’m not like that at all. I apologize. I don’t want to keep addressing it.”

Since then, Gruden has made no further public comment.

Michael Clayton, a retired wide receiver who played under Gruden in Tampa from 2004 to 2008, said of Gruden, “I will say that his way of being is tolerable amongst coaches. … We live in a culture when the elevated person spewing out that garbage, everybody has to deal with it. And that culture is synonymous around the league. Not only just the National Football League, but that’s our world culture."

'People change, good and bad'

In his book, “The Michael Clayton Story," Clayton, who is Black, writes that an unidentified coach told him, “You better get your (expletive) in gear because this draft I’m gonna get me some of those BIG, BLACK, STRONG (N-word)."

Clayton told USA TODAY Sports this week, “I don’t name Jon Gruden as the culprit I experienced it with. But it was unfortunate that I had to hear what came out of his mouth, and it just really tore me apart. For years. It made me lose the love for the game of football."

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Asked why he didn’t identify Gruden by name in his book, Clayton said, “In the book I say that (coach) will remain nameless because my book is a self-help book. It wasn’t meant to tear anybody down, so I didn’t want to put anybody’s name in there, because it would have went against the purpose of the knowledge in the book."

Corey Ivy, a retired defensive back who played for Gruden in Tampa for three seasons, said Clayton told him Gruden was the coach who used the racial epithet.

“Mike’s a good friend of mine, and he said that and I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Ivy said. “He was telling me a couple of things that happened between him and Gruden and all this stuff."

Ivy said he spent three weeks with the Raiders this summer as part of an NFL internship for coaches of color. Of Gruden’s emails, Ivy said, "It definitely was a shock." But he said some of his former teammates who played for Gruden were not surprised.

“Some guys figured that he was whatever everybody is claiming him to be, a racist,’’ Ivy said. “But I just never really seen anything racist about him. He’s always been a stand-up coach to me, but I guess the truth always comes to light."

During a 2009 interview, Rice called Gruden a “scumbag.’’ He was angry about being released by the Buccaneers before the start of the 2007 season despite having been a defensive stalwart on the Bucs’ Super Bowl team. He also accused Gruden of mistreating other players. But Rice, who is Black, said Gruden is not racist, that the two have reconciled and that Gruden is a "good man.''

“He said a bunch of inflammatory things that he probably shouldn’t have said at the time, because the world was moving at a different pace,’’ Rice said, referring to the emails that were written between 2011 and 2018 and uncovered during an NFL investigation into the Washington Football Team. “Now here we are. Now you’re left to face these things that you said at one point in time in history. ….

“Racism is a construct. He hired plenty of Black men, so he didn’t hold anybody back. He’s the first coach with an openly gay person (Carl Nassib) on his team. So he doesn’t pretty much have the mindset that he had 10 years ago.

“This is a teaching point, bro. This isn’t a time where you crucify somebody and bury somebody. This is reality.’’

Shaun King, a retired quarterback, said he didn’t think race was the source of conflict with Gruden during the two seasons he played under him in Tampa.

“Me and Jon did not see eye-to-eye hardly ever,’’ said King, who is Black. “I was a guy who thought I should be getting a chance to start. He didn’t think like that. I never thought it was because of skin color or anything like that.

“It was more because Jon had a really big ego when he came to Tampa. He’s pretty much conceited, wanted the spotlight, needed the spotlight. So a lot of those guys on that team, our issues weren’t (racial). They weren’t the things he’s dealing with currently. But again, that was a long time ago. People change, good and bad."

Keyshawn Johnson, the retired wide receiver who played for Gruden in 2002 and 2003, said he didn't think Gruden was racist. But Johnson has long assailed Gruden’s integrity, and that continued after Gruden’s emails were leaked.

“His bigotry? That behavior? I never saw that,’’ Johnson said. “So I could never say that the dude was a racist. I never saw that part of him.

“But I saw how (expletive) up he was and how he treated people. That I did see. And that was a bigger issue with me than anything. Talking out of the front and the back of your face. Just lying to be lying, saying things to be saying things and not being authentic but being problematic."

But Johnson said he got no thrill watching Gruden be pilloried.

“I didn’t really care, to be honest with you,’’ Johnson said. “He didn’t fool me in the end. He fooled everybody else. And I’ve been telling people for 20-plus years, ‘He’s a bad guy. Y’all don’t seem to understand. He’s not a good person. And he’s a fraud.’ ”

Johnny Parker, the head strength and conditioning coach on the Buccaneers team that won the Super Bowl, said of Gruden’s emails, “I didn’t know that Jon had these issues. … I won’t say surprised, but I didn’t know.’’

But Parker said language Gruden used around the Bucs was “in the gutter. Very, very offensive," such as when Gruden compared having “sex with a woman relentlessly’’ to the thrill of victory on the football field.

“That was just part of his talk," said Parker, who was fired after one season with Gruden and before that worked for the New York Giants and New England Patriots under then-head coach Bill Parcells.

Others, such as retired quarterback Brad Johnson, came to Gruden’s defense.

“I loved playing for Jon Gruden,'' Johnson, the starting quarterback on the Bucs’ Super Bowl-winning team, said by text message. "He taught me football at a high level, inspired our team to be world champs. He was great in the meeting rooms and I call him a friend.

“Unfortunately, some things were investigated into from some emails from way back when, 10 years ago. Jon has made a public apology and will have to go through some grieving time. Hopefully everyone can be accountable for their own actions, and we can all learn from any mistakes or any negative things that have taken place.’’

'Compassion needs to be had'

Bill Muir, who served as offensive coordinator during Gruden’s seven years with the Bucs, said Gruden’s charitable efforts reflect more about him than do excerpts of the emails published this week.

“I know a Jon Gruden whose actions speak an entirely different message than what is being portrayed in those emails,’’ Muir said. “I think that he made a mistake using some of the language that he (used). I don’t think he ever intended to slander anybody.

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"You know, Jon is a very emotional guy. I don’t condone it, but he used locker room talk when he was talking to some close friends about subjects that obviously at that particular time were heated and very concerning to him."

Gruden got his first NFL break in 1990. He worked as an assistant under Mike Holmgren, then the quarterbacks coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Two years later, Holmgren was the head coach of the Green Bay Packers and hired Gruden, then 28, to be the special offensive assistant/wide receivers coach.

Holmgren said he didn't see bigotry in Gruden.

"I know deep down who he is,'' Holmgren said. "At times, he gets carried away. But nothing like this."

Clayton, the retired wide receiver who said he suffered because of Gruden's behavior, indicated he now has conflicting feelings about his former coach.

“I know that truth needs to be told, but compassion needs to be had at the same time,'' Clayton said. "Because without a shadow of a doubt, regardless of what was said or what was done to me, I still love my head coach, my former head coach. He changed my life forever, and for that I’m forever grateful.''

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jon Gruden, ex-Raiders coach, said 'worse things' during NFL career