Raiders’ Coach Jon Gruden’s Cultural Cluelessness Gets Him Axed—Who’s Next?

Image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

You don’t have to go far to find someone excoriating Jon Gruden, the now-disgraced former head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders after The New York Times released a series of recently exposed emails from Gruden over the course of nearly a decade that shows a clear pattern of racism, misogyny and homophobia.

The obvious fall-out since then has been about Gruden’s words and the reaction so many have to them, especially as it relates to the NFL’s diversity efforts which to be fair, have been ratcheted up and improved upon in recent years.

But to lock in on the reaction of others throughout the NFL to Gruden’s words is to willingly be ignorant and ignore the reality that Gruden’s disgusting sentiments about various groups of people are likely shared in some fashion by other NFL leaders.

The idea that there aren’t other head coaches, General Managers, and team presidents or owners who have said either verbally or via email, similar racist and sexist tropes like the ones Gruden uttered repeatedly, is farcical.

Jim Trotter, an NFL Network reporter who is also one of the most respected media voices in the league, said Gruden is, “a very small tree in a very large forest of passive-aggressive behavior towards Black people.”

He’s right.

And that slippery slope Trotter refers to begins with a passive-aggressive dynamic in the views towards Black job candidates by those in the NFL (“We’d like to hire more candidates of color, but we don’t know where they are. Are they out there?”), and continues the downward slide towards condescending treatment, ignored calls for change and far too often, inept leadership that gets exposed for all that it lacks, diversity included.

This brings us to Gruder who was in the fourth year of a 10-year, $100 million deal with a base salary of $10 million that put him behind only New England Patriots coaching icon Bill Belichick and Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who reportedly make $12 and $11 million a year, respectively. Gruden is a living, breathing example of an extraordinary opportunity in terms of power and riches, falling into the lap of an extraordinarily ordinary coach.

In the nine full seasons he coached after winning a Super Bowl, only three of his teams had a winning record. Gruden’s overall record of 117-112 (.511 winning percentage) only adds to the head-scratching when he was tapped for a second tour of duty (he coached the Raiders 1998-2001) with the Raiders after just four playoff games in four seasons.

You give him props for winning SuperBowl XXXVII. But in a “what have you done for me lately?” league like the NFL, you hear a lot of crickets when you ask that question as it relates to Gruden.

Gruden-coached teams have not won a playoff game since that 2002 Super Bowl championship. And that team he won with, was built in large part by his predecessor Tony Dungy, one of the winningest Black coaches in NFL history.

This isn’t about whether the Raiders were right or wrong in hiring Gruden (they were wrong), or about his dismissal (it was the right thing to do). The Raiders parting ways with Gruden and the circumstances surrounding it only increases the concern level for all non-whites about leadership and diversity in the NFL, and how much of a role does what happens in the dark (i.e., Gruden’s emails) play into what we see come to light in terms of hiring.

What happened with Gruden should not be seen as a singular, one-off kind of moment for the NFL. It touches on what has been a systemic issue only that only adds to the inexplicable nature of why diversity continues to lack on such a large scale. It also challenges the belief that creating a greater pipeline of talent is what will bring about increased diversity.

It’ll help, for sure.

But as long as there are Jon Grudens in the NFL and other pro sports in positions of leadership—and we know they’re out there—any efforts towards diversity won’t fulfill their true promise to bring about the kind of change that’s more of a reflection of the league and its players.

Otherwise, we’ll continue along this path that includes inauthentic leadership that eventually migrates towards a state of cultural cluelessness which produces the kind of irrevocable damage that far too many of us are getting sick and tired of having to address and try to clean up!

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