Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 15, 2021

The NFL Must Step Up Before It Can Move On

It’s a safe bet that Roger Goodell and the thirty-two NFL team owners who employ him are fervently hoping that with Jon Gruden gone, attention will revert to the league’s on-field product.  With Week 6 of the NFL’s schedule on tap, many fans across the country will surely grant that wish.  After the defending champion Buccaneers open the week’s action in Philadelphia, two teams with exciting young quarterbacks not named Mahomes headline Sunday’s play when the Chargers and Ravens battle for AFC supremacy.  Arizona, the last squad with a chance to match the 1972 Dolphins’ perfect season, puts its 5-0 record on the line against upset-minded Cleveland, and there’s even an old-time rivalry matchup with the Packers visiting the Bears.  In short, there will be plenty of reasons for football fans to focus on the scores and how their fantasy rosters are faring.

Besides, it’s not just the NFL commissioner and the billionaires who pay him to keep the value of their franchises climbing who would like to change the subject from Gruden’s penchant for sending emails in which he resorted to racist, homophobic and misogynistic tropes to characterize anyone with whom he disagreed.  Countless fans – literally, too many to be counted – have uttered or written the same words, making any time spent discussing the topic inherently uncomfortable.  Especially because many of them would be quick to parrot Gruden’s responses when the Wall Street Journal first reported last Friday on a 2011 email he sent to Bruce Allen, who was president of Daniel Snyder’s Washington franchise at the time, and his statement on Monday when he resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders.

The Journal’s story detailed how Gruden, then an analyst for ESPN, used a racial slur to disparage Players Association head DeMaurice Smith.  In response Gruden issued the kind of not-quite-contrite apology that is sadly standard in such cases, complete with the hoary bromide that he “didn’t have a racial (sic) bone in my body.”  Within days, after the New York Times revealed that over a period of years there had been many more emails in which Gruden proved to be a serial and casual dispenser of bile, characterizing a lengthy list of individuals with a variety of homophobic and sexist terms, he concluded his brief resignation statement with the empty assurance that “I never meant to hurt anyone.”

The easy response is to mock such words, to assert that anyone uttering them – this case just happens to involve a somewhat famous and wealthy sports figure – is a boldfaced liar.  To be clear, in many, many such cases that instant reaction is the correct one.  But in a discussion that admittedly does not lend itself to nuance, there is another, more nuanced perspective, which allows for the possibility that someone mouthing those cliches believes them to be true.  The advantages of white male privilege are readily apparent to those to whom they do not accrue.  But they can be hardest to see by the very individuals who possess and wield them so freely as to not even recognize they are doing so.  Gruden quite clearly meant to attack and disparage his targets, yet he may not have believed he was hurting them by dint of the simple assumption that his words would remain private.  Similarly, he may not consider the slur against Smith to be racist because he can’t relate to the pain caused by its use.

None of which mitigates his actions to even the slightest degree, for the damage he did is not based on intent.  Gruden deserved to lose his job.  Good riddance.  But the struggle didn’t end when Jon Gruden walked out of Allegiant Stadium for the last time.  Those long engaged in the unforgiving task of slowly bending the long arc of history toward justice understand that.  Far more difficult than publicly shaming one NFL coach is ferreting out those still in the league who supported or enabled him.  After all, Gruden wasn’t sending those emails to himself, and there is no evidence yet than any recipient objected to Gruden’s words. 

Fans also shouldn’t forget that this week’s story began not with a complaint about the coach of the Raiders, but with an investigation into the workplace environment at Snyder’s Washington team.  That inquiry resulted in a $10 million fine, little more than a speeding ticket when set against the franchise’s estimated $4.2 billion value.  But Gruden’s emails are almost the only evidence from that investigation that has been made public, and that must change.

Hardest of all, of course, is turning those who benefit from their privilege into allies in the struggle.  But while that might often seem impossible, it is also essential.  In a sharp turn from the recent past when it expunged a black man from the ranks of its players because he engaged in silent, non-violent protest during pregame ceremonies, the NFL has lately been playing catchup on diversity and inclusion.  This week, some sportswriters scorned those efforts at raising awareness as hypocritical, or just commercially motivated. 

Such criticisms miss the point. It is results that matter, not motivation.  An earlier generation understood this when it used economic boycotts to effect change.  The NFL, a league run almost entirely by white men, can be an ally in the struggle, and if it is so only because of economic self-interest, so be it. But it will still require those who were born to privilege to understand what Jon Gruden did not, that their advantage is real and that words can do far more damage than a hard hit at the 40-yard line.      

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