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Opinion: Tony Dungy, Mike Tirico should have known better when supporting Jon Gruden

·5 min read
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There’s no reason to believe Tony Dungy and Mike Tirico were anything less than sincere when they came to Jon Gruden’s defense last weekend based largely on their years of personal experiences with him.

Tirico was Gruden’s broadcast partner on Monday Night Football, including at the time Gruden sent an e-mail to Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen using racist language to describe NFL Players association president DeMaurice Smith. Dungy, who is now a broadcaster with NBC, preceded Gruden as the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

It’s no surprise that those two men failed to process Gruden’s e-mail about Smith as evidence of a larger problem with bigotry because it didn’t line up with their personal experiences.

“I was with Jon at that time,” Tirico said. “Seven years as my partner on Monday Night Football. I probably know Jon better than anybody in the league on a personal level. He said it right, he was ashamed by the comments in the e-mail. The comments in the e-mail are wrong. But, my experience kind of parallels Tim Brown, who played for Jon and is a Hall of Fame receiver. He said he never experienced or saw anything that would say Jon was racist in any way. That is exactly the experience I had, those seven years of traveling, three days together on the road together every week.”

Jon Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday.
Jon Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday.

Those words certainly look naïve, at best, after more e-mails full of homophobic and misogynist language emerged in a New York Times report on Monday night, prompting Gruden to step down. And the reason Tirico and Dungy look so foolish today is because they allowed their assessment of Gruden to overshadow a fundamental truth about bigots: Most of them are pretty good at hiding their bigotry.

It’s no surprise that Gruden didn’t make racist statements around Tirico or Dungy, who are both Black. Of course Gruden wasn’t going to use homophobic slurs in the Raiders locker room where Carl Nassib is the first player on an NFL roster to come out as gay during his career. Obviously one of the biggest stars of the NFL’s broadcast partner isn’t going to go around calling Commissioner Roger Goodell vulgar names for female anatomy in public.

But that’s the way bigotry works. It’s rarely practiced when the bigot thinks the targets of their words are watching.

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We see this mistake all the time, and particularly in sports where so much of the product is packaged around the best qualities of the characters involved including the players, the coaches and even the broadcasters.

At the end of the day, though, we can’t assume that we know much about any of these people — what their beliefs are, what their prejudices are and especially what kind of offensive stuff they’re putting in e-mails to people who aren’t going to out them.

What Tirico and Dungy should be most ashamed of today is trying to suggest to a national television audience that their personal experiences with Gruden meant he wasn’t racist despite language about Smith that was plainly and explicitly racist.

Dungy, in particular, dropped the ball when he said he accepted Gruden’s apology at face value with no questions asked. “He said it wasn’t racially motivated. I have to believe him. I think this was an incident that was 10 years ago. He apologized. I think we need to accept that apology and move on.”

No, Tony, you don’t have to believe him — you wanted to believe him.

And what happens when otherwise rational people are invested in an obvious lie? It usually blows up on them.

Now that the truth is out for all to see, Dungy attempted to walk back his comments Tuesday, tweeting that the Raiders were correct to part ways with Gruden based on an “apparent pattern of behavior” as opposed to the isolated incident he thought he was discussing previously. Dungy also said Gruden was deserving of forgiveness if he shows “true remorse — and more importantly changes his mindset and actions.”

Fair enough. Everyone’s view of forgiveness is personal, and Dungy’s is based in his deep Christian faith. We’ve seen several examples in sports where bigoted comments becoming public have led people to real awakenings, like Tim Hardaway becoming an advocate for LGBTQ rights after saying “I hate gay people” among other homophobic remarks on a radio show in 2007.

Hopefully Gruden will follow the same path and eventually understand why the contents of those e-mails were deeply wrong, though his “I never meant to hurt anyone” statement Monday night suggests he still has a ways to go.

It should also be a dose of reality for the broadcasters who carried Gruden’s water on Sunday night.

It's impossible for most people to truly understand what kind of racism Tirico and Dungy have faced throughout their lives or how they process it now as famous, privileged television stars.

But they should have enough experience both in sports and in life to know that just because we don’t see someone’s bigotry up close and personal doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Trying to whitewash it instead of examining what it might mean or considering there might be more behind wasn't just a disservice to their audience, it was a misunderstanding of how insidious that kind of bigotry can be.

We can all learn from that lesson.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jon Gruden: NBC's Tony Dungy, Mike Tirico should have know better