Jon Gruden’s resignation as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders — spurred by sudden fallout from reporting by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times on past emails in which the 58-year-old used racist, homophobic and misogynistic language — is the latest demerit for the National Football League, which frequently struggles with player and coach misconduct.
The NFL is America's most popular professional sports league, but also often doubles as the country's most problematic, prompting the institution to commit considerable resources in recent years to attempts to varnish its reputation.
Last year, the league announced a 10-year, $250 million plan to help dismantle systemic racism, and the phrases “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” have become on-field mainstays, being stenciled at the back of end zones.
For Pride Month this year, the NFL released a commercial that stated “Football is for everyone.”
But these initiatives were overshadowed in recent days by the revelation of Gruden’s derogatory emails. The first email that surfaced was reported by the Journal on Friday.
In the 2011 correspondence, Gruden said that DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, had "lips the size of michellin [sic] tires.”
Late Monday, The New York Times reported on more of Gruden’s emails that spanned from 2011 to 2018, when he was working as a color commentator for ESPN.
In them, Gruden referred to league commissioner Roger Goodell using a homophobic slur and called him a “clueless anti football p----.” He also criticized Goodell for pressuring Jeff Fisher, then head coach of the St. Louis Rams, to choose “queers” in the NFL Draft, referring to Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted.
Carl Nassib, a defensive end for the Raiders, came out as gay in June.
The emails also show Gruden criticizing the emergence of women referees in the league and social justice demonstrations that players participated in during the national anthem.
Addressing the media after Las Vegas’s 20-9 loss to Chicago on Sunday, Gruden apologized for his comments on Smith, stating that he was “not a racist."
He resigned roughly 24 hours later.
“The fight against racism, racist tropes and intolerance is not over. This is not about an email as much as it is about a pervasive belief by some that people who look like me can be treated as less," Smith said in a statement.
"The powerful in our business have to embrace that football itself has to be better, as opposed to making excuses to maintain the status quo,” Smith added.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson tweeted that the league is in need of a “culture shift.”
“Words matter, and language is a reflection of the values of leadership. Coaches set the tone for team culture,” Anne Lieberman, director of policy and programs at Athlete Ally, a LGBTQ athletic advocacy group, said in a statement.
Some emails reported by the Times that Gruden sent were to Bruce Allen, a former executive of the Washington Football Team. They were discovered as a result of the league’s probe into the franchise’s toxic workplace culture.
The messages were flagged from a trove of over 650,000 emails that the NFL compiled in its investigation. Some have suggested that the NFL’s latest public relations nightmare could snowball
“I still have a lot of questions,” ESPN’s Mina Kimes said on-air Tuesday.
“Jon Gruden is not alone in expressing some of these hateful views, I truly doubt it. … It only confirms what a lot of people — myself included — believe, know, suspect, which is that people in power in this league and beyond, the things they say amongst themselves when they are comfortable are different from the things that they say in public," Kimes said.
Appearing on CNN, Kimes’s colleague Bomani Jones added that the release of the full investigation could force the NFL to have a full-scale “reckoning” with its culture.
“There was 650,000 emails,” Jones said. “Is Jon Gruden the person who said the most salacious thing in all those emails? That's probably not going to be the case.”