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It is rare these days in sports to get a fairly open-and-shut case like Jon Gruden has provided. Racism is more often spotted publicly in its systemic forms, baked into the way things work. Sexism and homophobia are prevalent, but in typically subtler ways: a promotion here, ignoring a possible coaching candidate there, the term “distraction” getting thrown around when a player speaks his or her mind.
And then there is the now former Las Vegas Raiders head coach, whose decade-old leaked emails this week included a use of a racist trope (commenting on the size of Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith’s lips); overt sexism (in comments about Sarah Thomas, the league’s first female official); and outright homophobia (in several ways, including calling Roger Goodell a “f—-t”).
The NFL can dust off its hands having rid itself of a person who had become the dreaded distraction after the distraction privately blasted its commissioner. The league can pretend it has identified the problem — one of racism and sexism and homophobia — and move on.
There is a lesson bigger here than just the one who is now without Raiders or ESPN jobs.
“Let’s not presume that Jon Gruden was an outlier,” Brad Thorson, formerly an NFL offensive tackle for a brief time, said Tuesday over the phone. “Let’s not make him a scapegoat because his behavior — as all of our behavior — is what we perceive by leadership and the culture around us as appropriate. Time and time again, when leaders in all sorts of social structures show that bad behavior is permitted, then the people who operate underneath them consistently make less-than-moral choices.”
If Thorson sounds particularly thoughtful about the culture problem at hand rather merely about the face of the latest NFL public-relations nightmare, there is a reason.
His stint in the NFL was short-lived. He spent 2011 in training camp with the Cardinals after playing collegiately with Wisconsin and Kansas from 2006-10. He broke his foot in camp — the second time he had done so in a calendar year — played professionally in Canada briefly and then retired.
Thorson read Jason Collins’ first-person story in Sports Illustrated in 2013, in which the NBA center became the first active male athlete from one of the four major North American sports to disclose that he is gay. Collins wrote that he first pondered coming out during the 2011 lockout, which forced him to reckon with his identity.
Without football and the routine it offered, Thorson did the same. He announced he was gay in a 2014 blog post.
He is now part of a small subset of mostly former players to announce they are homosexual in a league that did not have an active gay player until 2014 with Michael Sam — a player whom Gruden, in the leaked emails, referenced in blasting Goodell for forcing teams to draft “queers.” Gruden’s Raiders included defensive end Carl Nassib, who announced he is gay after he was signed.
At the time the emails were sent, Gruden was working as a broadcaster for ESPN and was cozy enough within league circles that he could use such language casually with, among others, Washington executive Bruce Allen, the team’s general manager for a decade.
The emails provide a peek at how predominantly male, predominantly white, predominantly heterosexual men speak to one another when they believe no one else is listening.
When the first flow of emails became public, Gruden held on to his job and proclaimed he doesn’t “have a racist bone in my body,” under fire but weathering it for his comments about Smith. It is harder to argue about bones that are sexist or homophobic, and harder even still to argue when the comments are targeted at the commissioner.
“We knew that Gruden was using racist language for days,” Thorson said. “And then the Times reports that he called Roger Goodell a f—-t, and that seemed to be the thing that doomed him more than anything.
“It’s funny to me that if you use a homophobic slur upward in the organization, that’s absolutely not allowed. … At the end of the day, what could be worse than calling a powerful man gay?
“As opposed to: We knew for days that this guy had a history of using racist language, and that was met with like, ‘We need to have some meetings. We probably need to have sensitivity training.’”
Parting ways with Gruden is a public-relations Band-Aid that announces to the world that the NFL will not stand for that behavior even as that behavior exists in so many inboxes that are not leaked to the media. It positions the league as progressive without the league actually needing to be progressive. There is no reckoning, but there is one Daniel Snyder, who continues to own the Washington Football Team after being fined $10 million as the result of the investigation into sexual harassment and abuse in the team’s front office. That probe searched 650,000 emails, and the only ones that have been seen by the public thus far were Gruden’s.
“If the owners really gave a s–t about the morality and the behavior of their owners, they would force him to sell his team,” said Thorson, who today lives in Westchester and runs business development for Molecular Testing Labs. “There are plenty of rich people in the D.C. area that could go in and buy that team, but that’s not what the NFL is.
“I don’t know that I’m willing to give myself hope that it changes, I think, at best, we get like a tokenisation effort.”
An effort that stamps “End Racism” in end zones while prohibiting players from kneeling on the field during the national anthem. An effort that makes a show of pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness while encountering a very public issue within the league with domestic violence. An effort that banishes Gruden rather than reckoning with the culture that allowed him to rise up in the first place.
Getting rid of a problem so they do not have to wrestle with the problem.
“I actually imagine that the NFL is going to be excited to have a scapegoat,” the 33-year-old Thorson said. “But this is not a unique problem. It just so happens that Jon Gruden decided to make himself a visible target for people who clearly have questions about morals inside of the NFL.”
Rebel in search of a cause
The Nets finally had enough of a superstar who is not vaccinated and announced Tuesday that he cannot be a part-time player. They will not allow him to play road games this season while skipping contests at Barclays Center, where New York City guidelines forbid him from entering without at least one COVID-19 shot.
Irving is one of the more peculiar personalities in sports to the point it feels intentional: He wants to be different. He wants to challenge the world’s perceptions of, well, the world itself, which got him mocked as a flat-earther for years.
Doesn’t it feel like he wants to rebel against, well, something? Anything? Even if it now involves jeopardizing his own health and the health of the people around him by refusing the jabs?
During the 2019-20 season, when Irving missed about two months’ worth of Nets games with a shoulder injury, he was ripped by former Celtics such as Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for missing his potential return to Boston. His reflection on it was curious.
“When I was out for those seven weeks and not saying anything and still people are still saying things about me. It’s inevitable,” he told reporters at the time. “They crucified Martin Luther King for speaking about peace and social integration. You can go back to historical leaders and great people in society that do great things, and they’re still going to talk s—about them. It is what it is.”
It sure feels as if Irving wanted to be a martyr about something.
The Yankees’ worst ALCS nightmare
Somehow, the Yankees’ season has gotten even worse since they were eliminated.
Hal Steinbrenner is not George, but would he do something Bossian if the Red Sox won a second title in four years, with a bullpen anchored by Garrett Whitlock, whom Brian Cashman’s Yankees let get away?
Would he do something Bossian if the cheating Astros won for a second time in five years, the team the Yankees continue to both chase and complain about?
The team seems content with both Cashman and Aaron Boone, but it will be interesting to see if external factors affect that feeling.
This Day in History
Oct. 13, 1996- New York Jets’ kicker Nick Lowery breaks Jan Stenerud’s NFL field goal record at 374 total.