Across the outer boundary of the north end zone at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the phrase “It Takes All of Us” is stenciled in green against a white border. The same saying appears in a similar location in every NFL stadium along with another league-sponsored slogan, “End Racism.” These are two of the six messages players are allowed to display using decals on the backs of their helmets. “It Takes All of Us” is also the title of the NFL’s “brand campaign,” announced in 2020, to promote its social justice initiatives.
The NFL invites skepticism by advertising its support of activist movements through corporate-friendly platitudes while still regulating how players may express their beliefs during games, even if it has, at times, put resources behind many notable causes. Even if the NFL proclaims its official support for an inclusive league regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, it’s not clear how it can uphold those values when those within its ranks fail to do so themselves. If it really takes “all of us,” is the NFL holding all of its own to account?
On Monday, Jon Gruden resigned as Las Vegas Raiders head coach after The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported the contents of several emails he sent to former NFL executive Bruce Allen, then president and general manager in Washington, and other sports executives and business leaders with connections to football, including a cofounder of Hooters. The first report came from the Journal on Friday. It included one email, sent in 2011 when Gruden worked at ESPN, in which he used racist language to criticize NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, writing that “Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin tires.” Gruden initially offered a nonsensical apology in which he told the Journal he uses the phrase “rubber lips” to describe people he thinks are lying and said that he doesn’t “have a racial bone in my body, and I’ve proven that for 58 years,” even though he hasn’t.
Gruden coached the Raiders in a 20-9 loss to the Bears on Sunday, after which he again proclaimed that he is “not a racist,” as if that were something he could simply decide for himself. Then, on Monday, the Times published comments from several more emails sent between 2011 and 2018. In them, Gruden casually spews racist, homophobic, and misogynistic statements. He used a homophobic slur when referring to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in one email, and in another, he said that Goodell should not have pushed former Rams coach Jeff Fisher to draft “queers,” in reference to the team’s 2014 selection of Michael Sam, who at the time was the NFL’s first openly gay player. Gruden vulgarly criticized the NFL’s attempts to reduce concussions and the hiring of female referees, and he said that safety Eric Reid, who had demonstrated against racism by kneeling during the national anthem, should lose his job. Gruden, Allen, and others also exchanged topless photos of women, including an image of two Washington cheerleaders.
On Friday, after just the 2011 email from Gruden containing the remark about Smith was published by the Journal, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement that the league condemned Gruden’s language and called it “appalling, abhorrent and wholly contrary to the NFL’s values.” When the Times published more emails three days later, Gruden offered his resignation to Raiders owner Mark Davis within hours.
Gruden’s departure from the Raiders after these emails were released is the simple part of this situation. What’s more complex is the degree to which the league that just condemned Gruden is still run by people who look like him and share similar views. It’s hard to see Gruden as an ideological outlier in the NFL: He’s the son of a football scout and coach, was raised around the game in the football-crazed towns of Sandusky, Ohio, and South Bend, Indiana, and then became one of the most recognizable faces in the league by working for iconic franchises like the 49ers and Packers. He won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers, then became a mainstay on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, a flagship broadcast partner with the NFL. And Gruden sent those emails to Allen, the son of Hall of Fame coach George Allen, a fellow member of a powerful NFL family and Gruden’s former colleague in Oakland and Tampa, using Allen’s official email address.
Allen’s email is ultimately how the messages were discovered. Gruden’s emails were among hundreds of thousands of documents collected as part of an NFL investigation into workplace misconduct involving the Washington Football Team. McCarthy told The Washington Post last Friday that more than 650,000 emails obtained as a result of that investigation were reviewed by league executives “in recent months” and presented in summary to Goodell last week. The league also sent Gruden’s offensive emails to the Raiders, McCarthy told the Post, but the contents of the rest of those documents remain secret, as do most of Allen’s and the other men’s responses to Gruden.
On Tuesday, both the NFLPA and the attorneys for several former Washington Football Team employees publicly requested that the NFL release all the emails collected during the investigation, but a person familiar with the situation told The Washington Post that no emails or additional information would be released.
It’s not surprising that the NFL is resistant to a potentially unflattering data dump, but it leaves the impression that Gruden may not be an anomaly. It’s easier for the NFL for this to be a story about one bad actor, rather than a representation of league culture that forces an examination of how Gruden was able to thrive for so long and why he felt so comfortable trading abhorrent views with other league power brokers.
How likeminded an audience Gruden had is significant because his emails show that he saw nearly every progressive milestone the NFL has passed over the past decade as an attack on what he believed football should be. To Gruden, improved safety measures, the hiring of a female referee, a Black executive representing players during the 2011 lockout, and the drafting of the first openly gay player were things not to be celebrated, but changes to be mocked and derided as hurting the league.
That he was acting in defense of football when he wrote those emails was also a pillar of Gruden’s initial attempts to explain them. “They were keeping players and coaches from doing what they love with a lockout [in 2011, the year of the first email containing the remark about Smith],” Gruden told ESPN on Friday. “There also were a lot of things being reported publicly about the safety of the sport that I love. I was on a mission with high school football during that time and there were a lot of parents who were scared about letting their kids play football. It just didn’t sit well with me.”
Clearly, the sport Gruden loves is incompatible with the values the NFL has tried to promote in recent years, the ones it wants “all of us” to do our part to uphold. By not releasing any more information about the other emails, the NFL is obscuring how influential figures feel about these values when they don’t think anyone is listening. There are many progressively minded people in the NFL—the Raiders themselves have a track record of diverse hiring ranging from the league’s first Black coach of the modern era in Art Shell, its first female chief executive in Amy Trask, and its second Latino head coach in Tom Flores. Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib came out publicly in June, and this September he became the first openly gay player to play in an NFL regular-season game. But the issues of exclusion and prejudice in football raised by Gruden’s emails are also not new at all, nor exclusive to this single scandal.
“This is not the first racist comment that I’ve heard and it probably will not be the last,” Smith said in a statement Friday. “This is a thick skin job for someone with dark skin, just like it always has been for many people who look like me and work in corporate America. You know people are sometimes saying things behind your back that are racist just like you see people talk and write about you using thinly coded and racist language.”
No one has a better grasp on how many Jon Grudens there are still, acting as leaders and deciding who gets jobs, than the NFL. Those documents the NFL possesses would likely give a clear understanding of what some people in charge of the game believe it should look like and who it should include, but the league’s refusal to release them is in keeping with how it’s handled the Washington case as a whole. (Full disclosure, I was interviewed about my experiences covering the team last September by an attorney at the law firm that conducted the investigation.) In July, when the NFL issued its punishment of WFT owner Dan Snyder after first hearing the findings of the investigation, it did not release any specific details from those findings. Snyder was fined $10 million as part of the punishment for fostering a workplace culture that Lisa Friel, the NFL’s special counsel for investigations, called “very toxic,” but Snyder was never forced to answer to specific reports. It’s worth noting that the 650,000 emails, Gruden’s among them, had yet to be fully reviewed when the league determined its punishment for Snyder.
It’s hard to understand why the contents of those emails wouldn’t have been pertinent to concluding that investigation. It’s easier to understand why, while some emails have now been made public, many perspectives—including, critically, any involving team owners—have not. If the NFL truly believes that fostering an inclusive culture around the game takes everyone, it should share this understanding with the rest of us so we can all know who’s on board and who isn’t, but that’s an admittedly complicated proposal when it comes to team owners. Gruden and Allen were powerful NFL figures from prominent football families, but they weren’t among the protected class who write everyone’s paychecks, Goodell’s included.
Any disclosures about the inner workings of the NFL will likely come only if the league is compelled to make them. As in the case of Colin Kaepernick, who sued the league and said owners colluded to keep him out of a job because of his protest against systemic racism, the NFL would often prefer the expense of settling litigation than potentially having private communications made public through legal discovery. A similar cost-benefit calculus will likely be made in response to the ongoing lawsuit brought by St. Louis over the Rams’ relocation to Los Angeles. (If anything, though, the Gruden emails probably make a settlement all the more appealing.)
For now, protecting that potentially unflattering information remains a higher priority than an honest assessment of how inclusive the NFL wants to be. It has never fully lived up to the values it stamps on helmets and paints in end zones, but only the league itself has the clearest understanding of how close or far it is from those stated ideals. No one is wholly unbiased, but seeking to recognize and acknowledge biases is the first step to creating a more inclusive culture. Gruden’s failure to do so just lost him his place in football. He is gone, but the NFL is still resisting the opportunity to take stock of how many other gatekeepers share his bigotry and desire to exclude. Until no one is shielded from that exposure, there is no “all of us.”