Jon Gruden’s Downfall
The quick and decisive story of Jon Gruden’s downfall is as remarkable in its unintended origin as its expedience. The now former NFL head coach was not the intended target of an ongoing investigation of abusive workday practices in the Washington Football Team’s operations. That was supposed to be Washington owner Dan Snyder and his senior leaders, including former team president Bruce Allen, a process that resulted in a $10 million fine and a whole lot of workplace sensitivity training. But the real loser in this exposition was Gruden when it was revealed that he had written a series of emails with misogynistic, homophobic, and racist content to Allen over the course of several years. This was largely when Gruden was a lead broadcaster and football analyst for ESPN after winning a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a period during which Gruden achieved nearly apostle like regard for being something of a quarterback whisperer. This mythology led him eventually back to a head coaching position with the Las Vegas Raiders in 2018, a position he held until Monday evening when he resigned mere hours after the revelation of his comments. His fall from grace comes in the tradition of Matt Lauer and Tiger Woods and others who went from near institutions to pariahs in the course of an earth’s rotation. For Gruden, that includes surrendering the remaining $70 million of his ten-year contract, having his name removed from the Tampa Bay ring of honor, and what we assume will be a loss of pretty much any and all sponsorship opportunities in the near future. Whether he’ll find other work in the sport down the road is up for conjecture; but for now, Jon Gruden is grounded.
I am not suggesting that we at all feel bad for Jon Gruden. His acts were both wrong and enduring over time. His comments about women and gay athletes were direct and clear. This isn’t part of the larger narrative about cancel culture or whether people are allowed to make mistakes or the PC police even the boundaries of speech and discourse. By all measures, what Jon Gruden wrote was wrong, and he did it over time and without irony. And not for nothing, when you’re the lead figure for either the nation’s top sports network or the head coach of an NFL team, it seems like you’d want to exercise caution and judgement before you hit send on an email. For this alone, I wouldn’t want him as my head coach, someone whose job it is to advise young men on how to make smart life choices.
There are some lingering questions to come out of the investigation, including whether the NFL should release all the thousands of emails from Washington. As appealing as that may sound to some, I’d suggest that’s a really slippery slope. I imagine we’d all like to assume some sense of privacy in our lives, even if work email should always be assumed public, even if it isn’t. The quest for a more just sport shouldn’t be the erosion of norms, and the intent shouldn’t be to crucify anyone who’s made a mistake. At the very least though, it will be a cautionary tale for workplace communication moving forward.
But the larger question isn’t about Jon Gruden or emails or punishments. It’s how do we make this better. In other words, how do work towards an NFL that doesn’t involve some of its most significant figures sending homophobic or racists or any other kinds of bigoted emails and thinking it’s okay? That’s a loaded question, because change isn’t isolated, and no organization, not even the NFL, operates in a vacuum. And it’s even more challenging in an environment where only men – large, publicly adored men who play a sport built on brute aggression – are able to be the industry’s most highly regarded employees. I imagine the answer isn’t found as much in the pros but more likely in the decades of play leading up to that moment, in youth and high school football played around the country. Where we still largely see young girls training to become cheerleaders for young boys who expect public idolatry. So even if the fish rots at the head, breathing new life comes at the gills. Maybe looking at the culture of youth, high school, and college football is just as important as however they might handle change in the NFL. That seems like the best place to start.
Of course, unlike the lightning quick downfall of Jon Gruden, that process will take some time.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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