Jon Gruden is out as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. He resigned on Monday after The New York Times published a report detailing how he had spent years making racist, homophobic, and misogynistic remarks in email exchanges with Bruce Allen, the former Raiders and Buccaneers executive who served as president and general manager in Washington. The emails were discovered as part of the NFL’s investigation into the Washington Football Team, for whom Allen worked from 2010 to 2019. Gruden was an ESPN employee at the time he sent the emails.
Last Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported on a 2011 email in which Gruden made a racist comment about NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. “Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin tires,” Gruden wrote. When asked about this email, Gruden told the Journal he couldn’t recall sending it, and said the message had nothing to do with racism—he said he has a history of referring to people he believes to be lying as having “rubber lips.” This explanation was plainly bogus; nobody has heard of that expression, and Gruden hasn’t used it in hundreds of hours of televised commentary or press conferences. Nonetheless, Gruden told the Journal, “I don’t have a racial bone in my body, and I’ve proven that for 58 years.”
But the Times report makes clear that he sent hundreds of similar emails, stretching from 2010 until he was hired by the Raiders in 2018. In them, he called commissioner Roger Goodell a “faggot” and a “clueless anti football pussy.” He denigrated the NFL’s female referees, said that players who kneeled during the national anthem to demand social justice should be kicked out of the league, and shared topless photos of NFL cheerleaders. He couldn’t spin this by claiming that some of the worst slurs in existence were actually folksy expressions you’d never heard of, or that the views he expressed weren’t accurate reflections of his character. This is who he is.
In a statement announcing his resignation, Gruden said he did “not want to be a distraction.” He also said, “I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt anyone.”
"I have resigned as Head Coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. I love the Raiders and do not want to be a distraction. Thank you to all the players, coaches, staff, and fans of Raider Nation. I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt anyone."— Las Vegas Raiders (@Raiders) October 12, 2021
Gruden was supposed to be the leader of a team with dozens of Black players, as well as Carl Nassib, the first openly gay man to play in an NFL regular-season game. Now they know how he talks about them when they’re not listening. He could never stay on as head coach.
But this isn’t just about Gruden’s emails or words. It’s what they indicate about the culture he fostered. Despite coaching a diverse team, Gruden repeatedly expressed that he doesn’t believe Black people, gay people, and women are qualified for jobs in the NFL. That’s not just an indictment of Gruden; it’s an indictment of everyone who enabled him, and a league that limits opportunities for those who don’t look like him.
Take Gruden’s comments about Smith, which insulted both his appearance and his intelligence. Now square them with Gruden’s decision-making over his 15 years as an NFL head coach. Between his tenures with the Raiders and Buccaneers, he has given snaps to only one Black quarterback: Shaun King, who was already on the Tampa Bay roster when Gruden was hired in 2002. None of Gruden’s past eight offensive or defensive coordinators have been Black. His only Black coordinator was Willie Shaw, who worked as the Raiders DC in 1998 and 1999. When Shaw was abruptly fired in 1999 after helping the Raiders go from 28th to 16th in points allowed in two seasons, Gruden and Allen tried to spin it as allowing Shaw to pursue head-coaching opportunities. Shaw never became a head coach; the Raiders promoted a white assistant, Chuck Bresnahan, to replace him.
Or take what Gruden said about the Rams drafting Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be selected by an NFL team. Per the Times, Gruden said that Goodell should not have pressured the team to draft “queers.” Now square that with Gruden acting as Nassib’s head coach. Nassib signed with the Raiders in 2020, 15 months before he came out as gay. Would the team have signed him if the timeline had been different?
Take how Gruden bashed the notion that women can be competent referees. Now square that with the fact that more women are working in the NFL with each passing season—this year, a record 12 women are on NFL coaching staffs. None are on the Raiders. Gruden hired Kelsey Martinez as an assistant strength and conditioning coach in 2018, one of four Raiders coaches with that title. Yet while three of those four coaches remain with the team to this day—including Gruden’s son, Deuce—Martinez left the team after just one season. The reason for her departure is unclear.
Take an email from 2017, in which Gruden said that former Pro Bowl safety Eric Reid should not have a job in the league because he kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. Now square it with Gruden’s remarks about Colin Kaepernick, the former NFC champion quarterback who has not been on a team since he began to protest during the anthem in 2016. In 2018, Gruden said Kaepernick wasn’t on an NFL roster in part because the quarterback had lost a position battle with Blaine Gabbert. As with many excuses coaches gave for not signing Kaepernick, it’s a flimsy one—and Gruden clearly thinks someone with Kaepernick’s political views doesn’t belong in the NFL regardless of talent. It’s worth noting here that Gruden’s backup QB for the Raiders over the past two seasons was Nathan Peterman, arguably the worst NFL quarterback of all time. Peterman is famous for throwing five interceptions in a half; Kaepernick threw four interceptions in his final NFL season.
Being an NFL head coach demands existing in a diverse league. Two of the past three league MVPs have been Black quarterbacks. Three of the four coordinators who coached in last year’s Super Bowl are Black. The defending champion Buccaneers have two female coaches, one of whom works with the team’s stellar defensive line. Being racist, homophobic, or sexist does not merely make someone a bad person. It prevents someone from being able to treat those around them as humans, with distinct skills and talents. If you’re an NFL head coach, it makes you bad at your job.
Gruden isn’t just some guy—he’s one of the most prominent voices in the NFL. He was ESPN’s lead Monday Night Football commentator for a full decade before signing a massive 10-year, $100 million contract to become the Raiders head coach. As mentioned above, the emails were discovered as part of an investigation into the Washington Football Team, which during Allen’s tenure was remarkably dysfunctional. That franchise has never had a Black head coach. (It did, however, hire Gruden’s brother, Jay.) In July 2020, more than a dozen women came forward with accounts of sexual harassment and verbal abuse by team employees. It’s hard not to read the Times report detailing how an NFL head coach and general manager spent years exchanging such repulsive messages and think of the bigger picture. There are only three Black head coaches in a league in which almost 70 percent of players are Black. It took until 2015 for any team to hire a female coach. And it took until 2021 for a gay player to decide that coming out wouldn’t immediately jeopardize his job status.
Gruden is out as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, but the story is more than just his emails. It’s the role he played in making the NFL more exclusionary, and the role others played in letting that happen. It’s the questions this raises across the league as a whole.