The NFL is as bigoted as ever

Coach Jon Gruden's resignation after homophobic emails were exposed isn't progress. It reflects that little has changed in the league.

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When news broke this week ofLas Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden’s swift resignation after homophobic, racist and misogynistic emails from his past became public, some people saw it as a measure of progress.

But let’s not forget that many also saw it as progress when the St. Louis Rams drafted openly gay Michael Sam in 2014 (only to drop him a few months later), with some media predictions claiming that eight active players were going to come in the next few months, even as a homophobic backlash ensued in response to Sam.

That didn’t happen (the first active player to come out as gay, Carl Nassib of the Las Vegas Raiders, didn’t come out until last year) for a lot of reasons I went into in detail about in my 2015 book, It’s Not Over. But those reasons can be boiled down to the simple fact that the NFL only made superficial changes. And that’s still the case now with Gruden resigning.

Sure, in the past this kind of exposure of emails in a major sports league would have caused days of furious and sensational media debate, virulent defenses and perhaps just a slap on the wrist — rather than a quick resignation.

But make no mistake: Gruden simply got caught making comments that reflect the thoughts and language of many in the league. He used the slur “faggot” to describe Sam in 2014 during the aforementioned backlash, warning against recruiting him, and he called NFL commissioner Roger Goodell by that term too. In a racist tirade he attacked the black leader of the NFL players union, DeMaurice Smith, as having “lips the size of Michelin tires.” He made a transphobic remark about Caitlyn Jenner, and he denounced having women serve as referees.

While the emails were sent when he was an ESPN commentator and not as an NFL coach, they are not all from “10 years ago,” as we’ve seen some claiming. They span from 2011 to 2018 and the emails are part of correspondence with other elite men in the league, including Bruce Allen, the former president of the Washington Football Team — and those men didn’t challenge any of the language.

The emails only came to light after several news organizations obtained a racist email last week and after The New York Times obtained misogynistic and homophobic emails this week — all stemming from an NFL review of workplace misconduct at the Washington Football Team this summer.

Why didn’t the NFL do something about the emails at that time? Why has it taken so long and taken newspaper leaks to warrant action?

The answer is that the NFL is as tolerant of bigotry as it’s its ever been — until someone gets caught. Then that person has to take the fall. That’s not progress.

The NFL, embroiled in many such controversies over the years as we’ve seen enormous strides in this country, simply did a lot of window dressing. More than anything it is worried about the bottom line. It went on a PR campaign to appear move enlightened on LGBTQ issues, women and race as it saw its revenue bleed.

But the attitudes are still in the Stone Age, and they’re allowed to stay there. The NFL has done little to combat bigotry, and make the NFL an accepting place for queer people and others, beyond the superficial gestures that are solely about public image. Ryan Russell, an NFL veteran who played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, noted this week:

As a former N.F.L. player who is Black and bisexual, I’m familiar with the culture that Gruden’s comments exemplify, and the complicity of silence within the sports industry that kept his emails under wraps. The culture runs deeper than just one head coach: Gruden’s emails are not just the hateful rant of a bigot, but a written history of the vast mistreatment of marginalized voices throughout the N.F.L.

And he pointed to what can only be deemed a coverup by the NFL, which makes it complicit with Gruden’s bigotry:

The long delay in disclosing these emails, coupled with their conversational nature, suggests that others in the N.F.L. are, at best, tolerant of these divisive views. At worst, they share them.

Indeed, the NFL has a lot to answer for as it seems to have hoped that this would just stay under wraps. Hiding bigotry and allowing it to fester — where it can still bubble up as hate and even violence against members of minority groups — is not the same as combatting it.

The only real progress here is people like Nassib courageously coming out on the very team that Gruden had coached, in spite of the homophobia in that environment, and standing tall. And people like Russell speaking out and and rightly pointing figures, shaming the NFL to do more than just buff up its image. We need a lot of that.

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