The fallout from the John Gruden imbroglio has widened and deepened. Many have asked why the NFL sat on the Gruden emails which were uncovered in the investigation of the toxic culture of the Washington football team, known to the NFL since the spring of this year, are only now coming into the public eye. Additionally, if the first email where Gruden disparaged the head of the NFL’s players union with a racial slur, which if it had not been brought to light by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on Sunday of this week, would it have been released by the NFL or Las Vegas Raiders at all? Finally, why did the NFL only send the first email to the Raiders when clearly there were many, many more that were unearthed. All good questions and they demonstrate several salient factors, not the least being as how the fallout from one event and investigation, can impact an entire industry. However, even without current answers to these and other questions there are several very important lessons for the compliance professional.
Don’t Put Stupid Stuff in Emails
Before we get to compliance, consider the most basic problem here. Not that Gruden is simply a racist, homophobe, sexist, misogynist and a person with little moral compass. We might have never known what was in his heart, if Gruden had not put those immoral values into emails over eight years. The reason he is now out of professional football, probably forever, is that he put his values into emails, in the crudest terms possible. Twenty years ago, I did corporate training on this very topic. That training is apparently still needed. Imagine how the civil litigation will look when all this gets to trial. All the plaintiff’s lawyer(s) will have to do is read the emails to demonstrate a wide variety of civil wrongs and regulatory breaches and the only question left will be damages.
Fallout from Unrelated Investigations
In the 21st century, nothing happens in a vacuum. The offending emails were uncovered in an unrelated investigation. These emails largely came from outside the entity being investigated (the Washington football team) and the investigative firm turned them over to the entity overseeing the investigation, here the NFL. As noted above, it is not clear what action the NFL might have taken against Gruden, his former employer ESPN or his current employer, the Las Vegas Raiders. Gruden’s resignation from the Raiders may well forestall an answer into those questions.
Now imagine the same scenario when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigates Activism for its toxic work environment (or the Department of Justice (DOJ) for that matter) or when the SEC investigated Lordstown Motors for a variety of other fraud and accounting issues. What if a set of similar emails appeared, all coming from an outside 3rd party, such as Gruden’s did to the Washington football team President Bruce Allen? Would the company employing that same 3rd party receive an email from the SEC requesting all emails from the offending employee? Would the SEC want to look at all emails? How would your company respond? Is the EEOC going to get involved? Will they (or the SEC) be contacting ESPN, owned by the Walt Disney Company, a publicly traded organization about the culture at ESPN which allowed Gruden to send those emails. Are you ready to respond to them?
What is Due Diligence?
No person wakes up in their mid-40s or 50s and thinks, today is the day I will start sending out racist, homophobic, sexist or misogynist emails and a throw away my moral compass. No one. They were like that long before they started doing so. Gruden had thought and felt those things long before he put them into print. Put another way, a leopard does not change it spots overnight. They were there for a long time.
As our colleague Candice Tal, founder of Infortal, continually reminds us, due diligence is not a one-time event nor a cursory google search. It is a sustained deep dive investigation. Gruden did not become a racist, homophobic, sexist and misogynist overnight. You can bet there are other pieces of evidence of his values and beliefs out there. The then Oakland Raiders signed Gruden to the richest professional football contract ever given to a coach, $100 million over 10 years. Yet they apparently did little to no background due diligence on him. Was there evidence of his racist, homophobic, sexist and misogynist views in the public record? Would it have mattered to the Raiders? Would the Raiders have hired him anyway? Perhaps so but at least they might have known about Gruden’s racist, homophobic, sexist and misogynist values and tried to manage that risk. Of course, they might have passed on hiring him altogether if they knew what the fallout could look like.
Culture, Culture and More Culture
What is the culture of your organization? Why did the NFL allow such a culture to flourish that would allow a Monday Night Football commentator on ESPN to hold the job and then become the highest paid professional coach? Is it because the Maga-hatter wearing NFL owners are all Trump supporters? What about the other employees who make up those organizations? Professional football players are 70% African American. What do Gruden’s remarks, the NFL’s non-response and the Raiders hiring communicate to them about how management thinks of them? Raider owner Mark Davis advised people to look to the NFL for answers.
Bill Rhoden, writing in The Undefeated, an ESPN publication, put it succinctly, “my concern is about the legion of enablers who supported Gruden all of these years. What about them? Who are they? The NFL has gotten rid of its Gruden problem. It has not gotten rid of Gruden-ism: regressive sensibilities that stand foursquare against diversity, inclusion and tolerance.” He went on to say, “The reality is that the NFL, for all of its attempts to move forward, has been revealed as a regressive organization populated by white men who hold views about race and power that are antithetical to progress and enlightenment. Trust me, Gruden is not the only person who holds these beliefs. He’s the only one stupid enough, or emboldened enough, to express them via email.”
In short, the NFL has a huge culture problem. But you cannot change unless you admit you have a problem. We have seen nothing from the NFL that indicates it believes the problem is beyond John Gruden.