In January 2018, Jon Gruden, famed ESPN analyst and one-time Super Bowl-winning head coach with the 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was hired by the Las Vegas Raiders to fill their head coach vacancy. Almost four years later, Gruden would resign after dismantling the organization by trading away young stars Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper, mismanaging draft capital, violating COVID precautions, and engaging in a disastrous trade for former Steelers star Antonio Brown. However, the greatest failure of Jon Gruden came off the field, within a culture that has been enabled by team executives, coaches, and even the administration of the league itself for generations.
On October 8, 2021, in the midst of the NFL’s investigation into the Washington Football Team for workplace misconduct, a mass of emails sent by Gruden to former Washington general manager Bruce Allen were unearthed. The Wall Street Journal would release the details of the emails, describing how Gruden called NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith “Dumboriss Smith” and mocked the size of his lips, a racial stereotype that has disparaged black individuals for eons. Gruden also referred to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a “faggot”, criticized the Rams’ selection of openly gay player Michael Sam with another homophobic slur, and stated that all players who refuse to stand for the National Anthem (a form of peaceful protest protected by the First Amendment) should be “fired”. Three days after the news broke on the email scandal, Gruden would resign from his position, as well as be removed from the Buccaneers’ Ring of Honor.
Since Gruden’s resignation, the NFL has remained essentially silent on the matter, with other stories (such as the Henry Ruggs III crash and Aaron Rodgers’ COVID scandal) being thrust into the limelight. But the Gruden scandal is incredibly important and needs to remain in the focus for the moment, because as much as the National Football League won’t say as such, Jon Gruden’s misconduct is only a symptom of the racial barriers and systemic racism present in the league today.
Let’s start with some statistics. The racial breakdown of the National Football League is heavily skewed: 57.5% of all NFL players are black or African-American, twice as large as the percentage of white NFL players (24.9%). It’s what makes the fact that there are only three black head coaches in the NFL (Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin, Miami’s Brian Flores, and Houston’s David Culley) an absolutely unbelievable statistic. Changes have been made by the league to increase the diversity of the hiring process, with the Rooney Rule requiring every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least two minority candidates. However, the Rooney Rule may promote more racist values than its non-diverse alternative: teams tend to interview non-white coaches without being seriously considered for the position, just to fulfill their requirement. It furthers the marginalization of the position of black and African-American individuals in the league, and reiterates that, in the eyes of the league, minority coaches are only statistics for PR purposes.
Some fans will point to Tomlin specifically, stating that his success in the head coaching seat of the Steel City is enough to prove that systemic racism is nonexistent in this league. However, those same fans were the ones calling for Tomlin’s head during the Le’Veon Bell holdout and subsequent Antonio Brown spectacle, stating that Tomlin lacked the “leadership skills” to steer the Steelers through the fracas. NFL head coaches are held to a specific standard—which they should be, seeing as they are firmly in control of the on-field success of franchises worth billions of dollars in revenue. But the standard for minority NFL head coaches seems to be far higher (e.g. playoffs or bust), and as a result they are on a far shorter leash than their white counterparts.
With regards to the treatment of the players themselves, we see racism in the National Football League on a daily basis. One of the most infamous instances of this in recent memory was during the build to the 2018 NFL Draft, when Hall of Fame NFL executive Bill Polian claimed that Heisman-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson should make the switch to wide receiver, citing “size issues” and “accuracy”. However, the statement was rooted in racist undertones. Black quarterbacks have been predisposed to racial stereotypes for generations, with analysts often attacking or implying intelligence issues, decreased leadership, and character issues. Busts such as Jamarcus Russell have been utilized by some analysts and executives as reasoning to not draft a black quarterback—which is wholly ridiculous, as if the roles were reversed teams would have refused to draft a future star passer like Josh Allen because of the lack of success from historically awful bust Ryan Leaf. Jackson, of course, would prove his naysayers wrong, and has dominated the league since his 2018 debut, utilizing his unique mix of a rocket arm and incredible agility and speed to manifest three playoff appearances and an MVP season. Nevertheless, Polian would double-down on his comments when he was one of three Associated Press voters that refused to vote Lamar Jackson as All-Pro during his record-setting 2019 MVP season—an offense that picked up far less traction than it should have. Polian’s vote was cast for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson—the second-shortest quarterback in the National Football League. Polian’s thought-process is baffling: for someone who critiqued Lamar Jackson’s height as a central issue regarding his pre-draft stock, Polian had no problem voting for a quarterback four inches shorter than the Baltimore star, adding fuel to the fire that Polian’s criticism had severely racist undertones.
Another instance of the NFL’s differential treatment between white and black players is the portrayal of their pasts. On live broadcasts during breaks in action on the field, commentators will sometimes converse about events that have occurred in the personal lives of players. For white players, the stories are predominantly basic and positive: for example, Jimmy Graham played basketball in college. However, when talking about black players the NFL force feeds their audience devastating events that have occurred in the players’ lives, attempting to gain an emotional factor and commitment from their viewer. However, their efforts have backfired due to the fact that their overreliance on this factor leads to fans feeling annoyed and disinterested, transforming these mountainous stories of hardship and devastation into molehills and delegitimizing players. Recent instances include the regularly repeated stories of Darren Waller’s alcoholism, Najee Harris’ homelessness, and James Conner’s cancer battle—these stories are all incredible, but after being reinforced so many times their continual mentions only serve to delegitimize them.
By silencing the conversation surrounding the Gruden scandal, the National Football League is being complicit in allowing systemic racism to flourish both behind the scenes and subliminally in live broadcasts. With a racist history heavily prevalent in the front offices of both their teams and administration, efforts in increasing diversity have been fruitless and provided further fuel for executives to stereotype and marginalize BIPOC individuals, preventing them from reaching the higher branches of the league-wide tree. As the NFL looks to steer itself into the future, these issues must be addressed, or we could see a sinking ship of scandals imminently.