John Gruden resigned as the coach of the Las Vegas Raiders Monday night. He did so after some of the most racist, homophobic and misogynist emails he had sent surfaced in an unrelated investigation. The emails were some of the worst things you could ever imagine anyone typing. They not only spoke to the character and values of the man who sent them but pulled the curtain back on a wider culture in the National Football League (NFL) which seemingly not only tolerates such behavior but celebrates it as well. Most importantly, the entire episode presented multiple lessons learned for every compliance professional. This post will be the first of a two-part blog series on Gruden’s emails, the fallout and how every compliance professional can walk away with multiple lessons learned from this sordid affair.
It all started with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that Gruden sent an email back in 2011 “about DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, to a team executive. Gruden’s email described Smith with a racist trope common in anti-Black imagery. “Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin tires,” he wrote in the email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.” From there it only got worse, much worse. The New York Times (NYT) reported “Gruden’s messages were sent to Bruce Allen, the former president of the Washington Football Team, and others, while he was working for ESPN as a color analyst during “Monday Night Football.” In the emails, Gruden called the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, a “fa—-t” and a “clueless anti football p—-y” and said that Goodell should not have pressured Jeff Fisher, then the coach of the Rams, to draft “qu–rs,” a reference to Michael Sam, a gay player chosen by the team in 2014.”
The NYT went on to report, “In numerous emails during a seven-year period ending in early 2018, Gruden criticized Goodell and the league for trying to reduce concussions and said that Eric Reid, a player who had demonstrated during the playing of the national anthem, should be fired. In several instances, Gruden used a homophobic slur to refer to Goodell and offensive language to describe some N.F.L. owners, coaches and journalists who cover the league.” He even said that an owner of a team Gruden coached to the Super Bowl should perform a specified sex act on him.
All of these emails were sent when Gruden was either employed by ESPN, the worldwide sports leader, or by then Oakland Raiders now the Las Vegas Raiders. The NFL espouses racial equality, respect for the LGBTQ community, anti-misogyny and player safety. It certainly appears that both in his heart and, more importantly, when sending emails Gruden was none of these things and held none of those values. As Sports Illustrated (SI) said, “The contents of these published messages are crude and derogatory, and at odds with the values the NFL claims to espouse. Gruden apologized after the first email was released but continued to assert that he is not racist and had no racial intentions with his comments, demonstrating apparently willful disregard for the harm inherent to the words he chose. When the Times published the contents of the rest of the emails, Gruden’s own words disqualified him from leading an NFL franchise, moreover one with an openly gay player, Carl Nassib, and in a league that is 70% Black.”
How did all these emails ever see the light of day? ESPN, the same organization which employed Gruden during much of the relevant time frame, said, “The emails came to light during the NFL’s investigation into workplace misconduct with Washington, as “the league was informed of the existence of emails that raised issues beyond the scope of that investigation,” according to NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy. Senior league executives reviewed the content of more than 650,000 emails, including the one the Journal reported was written by Gruden to [Bruce] Allen. The NFL sent pertinent emails to the Raiders for review.” The Washington Football Team (as they are now known) had its own toxic culture with the team being fined $10 million and the owner being removed from its day-to-day operations for a period of time.
Over a seven year period, one of the most prominent NFL commentators and later the highest paid coach in the NFL, Gruden was making $10 million annually, on a 10-year contract, sending out racist emails about the head of the NFL players union, criticizing in the crudest way possible the Commissioner of the NFL, disparaging the only openly gay professional football player, attacking the first female referee and encouraging a former employer (and boss) to perform a sex act on him. What lurks in the heart of the man? In Gruden’s case he put it all out in these emails. Did he have those same values when he was a lead analyst at ESPN and later the highest paid coach in pro football? I think we know the answer to that question as well.
What did Gruden say in response to all of this? When the initial email was reported by the WSJ, he simply replied that he did not recall the email. Gruden then amended that statement to say, “Gruden told ESPN that he routinely used the term “rubber lips” to “refer to a guy I catch as lying … he can’t spit it out. I’m ashamed I insulted De Smith. I never had a racial thought when I used it,” Gruden told ESPN. “I’m embarrassed by what’s out there. I certainly never meant for it to sound that bad.” [emphasis supplied – as in how bad did he intend for it to sound?] ESPN issued a terse statement saying in part, “The comments are clearly repugnant under any circumstance”.
Join us tomorrow where I consider what all of this means for compliance officers, corporate America and our collective values.