The NFL is intertwined in the Jon Gruden racism controversy, and it can’t just walk away

·NFL columnist
·6 min read

In 2011, Jon Gruden wasn’t an NFL head coach. But he was very much a part of the machinery.

Not only was he climbing up the star ranks at ESPN, he was making millions off his NFL resume and the fame it facilitated. Eventually, those millions would turn into many millions every single year as the network’s highest paid on-air talent. And almost all of the money rolled through NFL doors that were left wide open for him. Whether it was Gruden’s visits to NFL facilities, a center-stage “Monday Night Football” gig, or his pre-draft “QB Camp”, there was no shortage of NFL avenues that he utilized to stockpile money and opportunity.

Even when he wasn’t in the league’s coaching ranks, Gruden kept himself synonymous with the product. And that’s precisely why the NFL can’t just walk away from the very telling mess that Gruden has created for himself. Because it’s not just his now. It’s the league’s mess too, and how it gets sorted out will say plenty about whether this is just the same good ol’ boys network of the last century, or a corporation that is actually interested in progressing beyond the kind of casual racism that Gruden felt comfortable to send to the general manager of an NFL team.

Oh, yes, I’m aware that Gruden has said — repeatedly — that he’s not racist. He repeated it again on Sunday after his Las Vegas Raiders lost at home to the Chicago Bears.

“I don’t have an ounce of racism in me,” Gruden said.

NFL head coaches. They sure do love measuring things into definable increments. Even racism.

So I guess maybe it was just a half-ounce of racism when Gruden used that racist trope about the size of the lips on NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. And maybe it was just a half-ounce of irony when Gruden did it in an email to then-Washington general manager Bruce Allen — who was nestled inside an organization continually ridiculed for having a racist nickname and logo. And I guess it was probably just a half-ounce of karma that the conversation came out in a workplace investigation of that same organization, which determined the franchise was abusive enough toward women to use phrases like “toxic” and “highly unprofessional.”

I guess maybe Jon Gruden was sending his email to the right place.

And yes, we know, he says he was mad about the lockout and said all kinds of bad things about a lot of people because of it. He told ESPN that he used an expletive to refer to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in an email. And according to that same report, “also included harsh words for a handful of team owners.”

I’d be curious to see these emails. I’d like to know if any of those harsh words included describing owners through racially offensive observations about their physical features. I’d also be curious to know if Gruden thinks calling a white commissioner an “A-hole” or a “MFer” is the same as identifying the Black union head with a snipe about the size of his lips. Seems like a pretty interesting choice to not simply use the same expletive for both men.

No, Jon Gruden wasn't technically in the NFL when he sent the racist email to then-Washington executive Bruce Allen. But he's wasn't exactly far from the league, either, and the NFL simply can't ignore this controversy. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)
No, Jon Gruden wasn't technically in the NFL when he sent the racist email to then-Washington executive Bruce Allen. But he's wasn't exactly far from the league, either, and the NFL simply can't ignore this controversy. (Photo by Chris Unger/Getty Images)

But Gruden maintains that he never had a racial thought in his head. Apparently it was just a hamster on a wheel that churned out the phrase “lips the size of michellin tires (sic).” Or perhaps it really was some half-baked instance of using the phrase “rubber lips” to describe liars. But that sure seems like going an awfully long way to call a guy a liar — running a single word through your Spider 2 Y Banana metaphor machine and then coming out with something that later requires you to explain why there isn’t even one ounce of racism (not one?) in it.

Frankly, the NFL shouldn’t care. It should act here. It should make a statement that your words matter. Especially when you’re someone of Gruden’s stature and have spent decades steeped in the riches and fame that the league provides. There’s nothing stopping the league from stepping up here, either. NFL coaches aren’t governed by a collective bargaining agreement. They have no union. If precedent serves, the league can pretty much do as it sees fit when one of its coaches does something to embarrass the league office.

And yes, this is an embarrassment to the league office. Because it took someone leaking the email to the media for it to become public, and that just underscores how filthy it is to have an investigations given through “oral reports” rather than written ones — because god forbid something like this gets out.

Well, whoops. It got out anyway. And now the league has a dilemma on its hands. The head coach who was chosen by Raiders owner Mark Davis before his last coach (Jack Del Rio) was even fired — essentially violating the spirit of the Rooney Rule back in 2018 — now has to spend time quantifying the number of ounces of racism inside him. And his players? Well, if any of them are actually upset about what Gruden wrote in that email, they certainly aren’t in a great position to share that publicly.

Instead, someone else is going to have to make the statement and hold Gruden accountable. If that someone isn’t going to be Mark Davis, then it needs to come from the top of the league. From someone like Goodell, who is well within his rights to point out that this was 10 years ago and Jon Gruden was a man just a few months shy of his 49th birthday. Which is pretty late in life to not understand racist terminology, or the potential downfalls of utilizing it in an email sent to a highly placed franchise executive.

There is no statute of limitations on this. There are also no private boundaries that protect it, as if Gruden was whispering it into an empty box in an empty room with the lights turned out. He sent it to an NFL executive. He made the remark about a union executive. And then he chose to walk right back into their world to earn an even bigger paycheck than before. There’s an element of responsibility that comes with that. Now the league needs to make sure Gruden takes some.

And it needs to be a hell of a lot more than a single ounce.