Here we go again. The NFL continues to be on the wrong side of history.
A few weeks ago, Jon Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders after damning emails he sent between 2011 and 2018 while he was an analyst for ESPN came to light. He mostly exchanged the emails with the then-general manager of the Washington Football Team, Bruce Allen (who the team fired in 2019). In the emails, Gruden exposed his own hateful opinions and used slurs and stereotypes to describe people around the NFL. Examples included using homophobic slurs in 2014 to describe Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL; denouncing women as referees; saying that they should fire Safety Eric Reid for protesting during the national anthem with Colin Kaepernick; and making racist comments about Demaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association. Additionally, Gruden and Allen traded lewd pictures of women over email, including images of cheerleaders for the Washington Football Team (The New York Times, 2021).
A probe that originally had nothing to do with Gruden prompted the emails’ discovery; it was an investigation into misconduct within the Washington Football Team organization after employees complained of sexual harassment and a toxic workplace environment. The NFL concluded its investigation of the Washington Football Team in July, stating, “The culture of the club was very toxic and fell far short of the NFL’s values,” and subsequently fined the organization $10 million (mere pocket change for an organization worth $4.2 billion). But the NFL does not plan to release the rest of the findings (The Washington Post, 2021). Washington Football Team employees accused (among others) owner Dan Snyder of harassment within the organization. Many believe it is likely that the NFL’s findings would be damaging to Snyder if released to the public in full.
This whole situation feels reminiscent of Ray Rice in 2014. Rice, then a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was arrested for domestic assault and the NFL suspended him for two games. But months later, when a video of the incident came to light showing Rice brutally beating his then-fiance, there was a public outcry and the Ravens only then released the star running back. He would never play another NFL game (USA Today, 2019). This email situation is analogous in that the NFL did a private investigation and only gave out a paltry punishment. Gruden would not have had to step down if the New York Times hadn’t leaked the emails. The NFL doesn’t care about culture, equality or justice of any kind. Per usual, they care only about the size of their profit, no matter how many times they paint “end racism” in the endzones or make cute commercials about “inspiring change.”
The emails between Gruden and Allen are unfortunately not exceptions, but the norm for those at the top. Teams continue to overlook Black head coaches and managerial candidates in favor of their less qualified white counterparts, and plenty of NFL players accused or in some cases convicted of assault still continue to play (see Kareem Hunt, Ben Roethlisberger, Tyreek Hill, Antonio Brown and many others). Behind the scenes are important figures in organizations making comments like those of Gruden and Allen. In 2021, Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib became the first ever openly gay active player in the NFL (The New York Times, 2021). Ironically, Gruden was Nassib’s coach when he came out in June, but Gruden’s comments are exactly why it took so long for someone to feel comfortable coming out as an active NFL player.
The NFL has one of the most toxic cultures of any workplace in the country. The NFL leadership represents everything wrong with the United States today: a small handful of old, rich white men have complete control and only care about money. Racist, sexist, and homophobic comments and incidents of bias are commonplace. Empty performative gestures are made to improve image. Crimes and assault employees commit are completely ignored and there is close to zero accountability.
As the NFL moves forward in the 21st century, it needs to be held accountable. No more covering up the details of investigations, no more slaps on the wrist when someone breaks the rules, and they need to bring in fresh faces at every level of the league. Front offices, coaching staffs and all other positions need to be diversified, with differing opinions and perspectives finally getting a home in the NFL. But I hate to say that none of this seems likely right now. The NFL has usurped church as the most important few hours of America’s Sundays over the past few decades, and continues to roll in obscene amounts of profit. For there to be any real change, the American public needs to push back against the NFL and make it clear that we are sick and tired of all the crap. Otherwise, it will just be business as usual.