Jon Gruden wrote the hateful words in an email 10 years ago, long before he became coach of the Raiders for the second time, but well after he’d become a major figure in the NFL. And now those words have come back to haunt him, almost certain to follow him for a long time.
Perhaps the rest of his career.
However long that may last.
Gruden is under fire for using a racist trope about NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith in a correspondence with then Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen. Gruden was an ESPN Monday Night Football analyst at the time, but he owns the words he used to describe Smith while criticizing the labor leader for his failure to head off a lockout of NFL players in 2011.
The email surfaced as part of the NFL’s investigation into years-long systemic problems within the WFT organization while Allen was the team’s lead executive under owner Daniel Snyder. And while the timing of the release of the letter is at least curious – it surfaced just as Smith, whose tenure with the NFLPA was on shaky ground before a vote on Friday narrowly kept him in office – the fact remains that Gruden must live with the consequences of his language.
It may not mean he will be fired as the Raiders’ coach, unless more information comes to light and team owner Mark Davis feels he must act. But it does mean that Gruden will now operate with a cloud of suspicion among his players, the majority of whom are African American and who simply can’t ignore that denigrating way in which Gruden described Smith.
Gruden apologized publicly to Smith, but the damage has been done.
The NFL appropriately rebuked Gruden.
"The email from Jon Gruden denigrating DeMaurice Smith is appalling, abhorrent and wholly contrary to the NFL’s values," the league said in a statement. "We condemn the statement and regret any harm that its publication may inflict on Mr. Smith or anyone else."
Smith said in a statement this was "not the first racist comment I’ve heard, and it probably will not be the last. 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 … Racism like this comes from the fact that I’m at the same table as they are, and they don’t think someone who looks like me belongs."
Words matter, especially words that surface in an industry in which 70% of the NFL’s players are African American. How does Gruden now look his Black players in the eye, knowing that they know the stereotyped language he used to describe Smith? And how do the Raiders square this with the fact that this franchise is known for its laudable efforts to promote diversity over the years? Remember that Al Davis was the first owner in the modern NFL to hire a Black coach – Art Shell in 1989.
The late Hall of Fame Raiders guard Gene Upshaw, who preceded Smith in his role as NFLPA executive director, frequently lauded Davis for giving African Americans and women a seat at that table that Smith referenced.
Davis’ son, Mark, who couldn’t wait to hire Gruden in hopes of rekindling the hopes of a franchise he’d previously coached before winning a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, is certainly troubled by the racist language his coach resorted to a decade ago. No matter that Gruden wasn’t the Raiders coach at the time.
It has been a mostly disappointing run for Gruden since Mark Davis lured him out of retirement in 2018. He hasn’t been to the playoffs, traded away the team’s best defensive player, Khalil Mack, his drafts have been spotty and he simply hasn’t recaptured the touch that once made him one of the NFL’s most accomplished coaches.
And now he has another serious problem on his hands. It’s one thing to lose on the field. It’s another thing to lose your credibility in the locker room.
It will take a lot for him to restore that reputation. In the end, it simply may not happen.