Jon Gruden and the Importance of Forward Thinking

Yesterday Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden “resigned” his post after a search of his old emails revealed he had made racially-insensitive and homophobic comments since 2011. I say “resigned” because, while he did in fact resign, it seems willfully ignorant to believe it was actually his choice.

The original email that got Gruden in trouble was one sent in 2011, during the midst of CBA negotiations and a player lockout, and said NFL Players Association (“NFLPA”) Executive Director DeMaurice Smith had “lips the size of michellin [sic] tires.” Smith, who is Black, served as executive director of the NFLPA and in many ways was leading the NFLPA’s battles for more favorable terms in its collective bargaining process with the NFL. Owners locked out players from March to June 2011, and while no actual football was really missed, many owners, coaches, players, and fans were understandably frustrated with the lockout and the actions of both the league and the NFLPA. Gruden, in a moment of frustration that I’m sure he regrets now, made the comment about Smith’s lips in an email to former Washington Redskins (as they were known back then) president Bruce Allen.

In another twist, Gruden wasn’t even working in the NFL when he made those comments. He was doing color commentary for Monday Night Football and did not have any affiliation with any one team. He and Bruce Allen were personal friends, and I’m sure Gruden felt that the emails were nothing more than a private conversation between friends.

The discovery of the email about DeMaurice Smith led to further investigation into Gruden’s emails, where investigators found homophobic language, including “f—-t” and “q—r,” and misogynistic language in the form of comments about NFL commissioner Roger Gooddell and memes about female officials. Most reports have also unnecessarily pointed out that Gruden criticized then-president Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

Now, before I really get into this, I want to make it plain that I am not defending Jon Gruden’s words. People shouldn’t make racially insensitive comments, especially in a serious tone and especially in writing. While Gruden is probably not an actual racist, he did make a comment that would be expected among racists. With that in mind, let’s look at this from a different angle.

Don’t Put Stuff in Writing

Email has officially lost its novelty. I remember in the late 1990s seeing things about email addresses and hearing friends and family talk about email. It was lightning fast and great for communicating with someone you didn’t want to talk to on the phone. When I got my first email address in 2003 or so, I really only used it to create a Myspace page and didn’t really use it for communication. Of course now I’m in my thirties and email sucks. Everyday emails just pile up in my inbox, reminding me that perhaps instant communication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But hey, at least it’s free and while it seems like the bane of my existence, I know the conveniences of email outweigh the downsides.

But the point is that by now we should know that emails are never truly gone. I don’t know if Jon Gruden knew that in 2011, but he should have known it in 2017. My advice to everyone is to never put anything even remotely incendiary in an email. No off-color jokes, nothing mean or hateful, and definitely no uses of racial or homophobic slurs, which you also shouldn’t use elsewhere, either. Email is forever. Snapchat is forever. Texts are forever. Unless someone nukes a bunch of servers and disconnects the world internet for a while, your emails will exist for eternity.

Is that a lot? It feels like a lot: Jon Gruden's 66 compliments from Monday  Night Football | News

And look, I would guess that most people have at least one email they hope never comes out. It’s probably something otherwise mundane like a joke that relies on racial or gendered stereotypes, or maybe a chain of emails where you got in a petty argument with someone and used some language you shouldn’t have, but either way you don’t want those out. And this isn’t a job-costing thing for everyone like it was for Jon Gruden. I mean just for the sake of embarrassment. I know I have sent emails that would not paint me in the best light. I can’t think of any one example, but I know if I were able to review every email I’ve ever sent, there would be some that I wouldn’t want ever being made public.

And that doesn’t make me or you or anyone else a bad person. It makes us human. Humans do stupid things, and it sucks. It’s a huge flaw in our software, but without it we wouldn’t have freewill, so I suppose we take the good with the bad. But no one—no one—is a good person 100% of the time. Imagine if every communication you’ve ever had was made public. Every in person conversation, every phone call, every text, every email, every instant message, every voicemail, every word ever uttered through a headset, and every word you’ve ever said out loud in either the physical or virtual presence of another person. Imagine that. How would that be for you? Would there be some stuff in there you regret and wish you’d never said and in fact didn’t even mean at the time?

Of course we sometimes say stuff we don’t really mean in the heat of passion. But then we’re back to my advice: don’t put anything in writing. Here’s something that helps me. Because I’m a lawyer by trade, I have a little bit of training on the rules of evidence and what is and is not admissible in court. What has helped me is that now, every time I send an email, I imagine that email being labeled “Exhibit A” and entered into evidence during a legal proceeding, and that keeps me from saying anything too stupid.

Thought Police

But we can’t have thought police. And we can’t assume that anyone is perfect. What Jon Gruden said in his emails is reprehensible. But does it mean Gruden is an inherently bad person? No. Could he at one time have been a bad person? Sure, but the other great thing about freewill is that humans have been given this wonderful capacity to change, to learn and grow from their experiences, and to generally better themselves over time.

Look, maybe Jon Gruden is a garbage person. I don’t know. I don’t know the guy from Adam. But most of the things I’ve seen from people who have played with him and worked with him say he’s a good guy. So does saying one admittedly awful thing ruin him forever? We’ll see.

The Obama-Biden Virus Response - WSJ

But I also want to touch on something else in the emails. A story by the New York Times on this debacle mentions that Gruden criticized President Obama and Vice President Biden. That shouldn’t be news. That shouldn’t be in the article. It has nothing to do with anything, and the Times is just taking an opportunity to show how woke they can be by pointing out that someone had the audacity to criticize their lord and savior Barack Obama. On a personal note, I didn’t care for the Obama Administration, and I didn’t care for the Trump Administration, and I don’t care for the Biden Administration. I’m not a Democrat, I’m not a Republican, and I don’t want anyone coming away from this trying to #cancel me because of this paragraph or the next one, because my thoughts on this are not partisan and not really political, but are more about journalistic integrity and cancel culture.

People should be able to criticize politicians and that isn’t news. If it came out that Gruden had criticized Donald Trump it either wouldn’t have been in the article or would have been used to point out that maybe Gruden isn’t so bad after all. That’s what bugs me here. The media (minus Fox) had an absolute love affair with the Obama Administration for the most part and the unveiled partisan nature of even mentioning that Gruden criticized President Obama and insinuating that that criticism makes him a bad person is sickening. And I would say the same thing no matter who the subject or the president was. It’s not news and the fact that it was even mentioned in the Times article is proof that the Times isn’t really in the business of providing news but is instead in the business of shaping perceptions according to an agenda. Unreal.

Gruden Awakening

Jon Gruden will probably never work in the NFL again because of this. And maybe that’s him getting his just deserts. Maybe he’s an actual racist who should be ridiculed and reduced to the oxygen-stealing filth that all true racists are. But maybe he’s not. Maybe he’s a guy who let his frustrations get to him and in a moment of incredibly bad judgment insulted someone based on race because he was upset and it’s easy to comment on people’s race.

What’s interesting is that the private investigators combing through Gruden’s emails have not indicated they found any other racially-insensitive material in almost ten years of emails being reviewed. Sure, there are a handful of other awful comments, but not very many of them. And yes, I know, any amount of racially insensitive, misogynistic, or homophobic commentary is too much. But the fact that the comments seem to be few and far between over an almost ten year period would suggest that Gruden isn’t actually a racists, misogynist homophobe, but is instead a guy who devastatingly misunderstands what it means to have a sense of humor.

I think Gruden was trying to be funny, and I think he’s not a naturally funny person and so he jokes about things that are easy to joke about: race, gender, sexual orientation. It doesn’t mean he actually believes that straight white men are in fact better than everyone else, it just means he has a bad sense of humor and exercised bad judgment. Tony Dungy was willing to forgive Gruden and accept the apology Gruden issued late last week. Jon Gruden needed to address his comments because they are disturbing and gross. That doesn’t make Gruden a bad guy.

Keyshawn Johnson says Jon Gruden is a bad person (although Keyshawn conspicuously did not accuse Gruden of being a racist). Maybe Keyshawn is right. Maybe Gruden is a bad person. But a handful of stupid comments in ten-year-old emails is not prima facie evidence that he is a bad guy. Stephen A. Smith said that Gruden should not have been fired, but that instead he needed to take responsibility for his actions. Grain of salt: Stephen A.’s comments came prior to Gruden’s resignation and the New York Times disclosure of misogynistic and homophobic comments.

And to paraphrase Stephen A. Smith, we’re all human, and we have all said and done things that we regret. If our lives were all made public, most of us would be embarrassed and ashamed (rightfully so) at some of the things we’ve said and done. What he said was awful, and he clearly needs to take responsibility for what he did, but we need to reserve ultimate judgment because those of us in glass houses should not cast stones.

In the meantime, we all need to be more considerate to one another, and we should think before we speak, especially if it’s in something like an email where context and inflection are difficult but posterity is easy. All we can ever hope to do is to be better today than we were yesterday, and I sincerely hope that is the main takeaway from this entire mess.

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