Now that Jon Gruden has been forced out in Las Vegas – and this, after an eight years-long email trail of his racist, homophobic and misogynistic exchanges were unearthed as part of an investigation into the Washington Football Team’s fratty workplace culture – it’s worth revisiting how the coach came to power in the Raiders organization for the second time in his gilded career.
Six years before Gruden was lured out of ESPN’s Monday Night Football booth with a 10-year, $100m carrot, the Raiders were circling the drain; in 2014, they’d win a paltry three games on the way to tying for the NFL’s third-worst record. But over the next few seasons the team slowly rebuilt itself into a contender, winning 12 games to reach the 2016 playoffs. And there was no doubt that resurgence was a credit to the shrewd work of general manager Reggie McKenzie, the former Raiders linebacker and the first person to run football operations other than owner Al Davis.
But when Gruden returned to the team in 2018 , what did he do? He won a whopping four games with almost the same group that had won 12. He undermined McKenzie – the NFL’s leading executive in 2016 – by installing a rival scouting department and creating a separate draft board. And Gruden jettisoned many of McKenzie’s best discoveries, not least trading away All-Pro defensive end Khalil Mack to Chicago. In the end the yawning divide in the Raiders front office grew untenable, and McKenzie was let go – and now it’s difficult not to wonder if that wasn’t because he’s Black.
You can believe Gruden when he says he doesn’t “have a racist bone in my body”. You can chalk him up as the blood sacrifice of a football culture whose moral rot runs deeper than just emails. You can dismiss his exchanges as the private ramblings of a small and insecure man woefully out of touch with the world at his fingertips. You can’t say it isn’t rich that the coach who all but called the NFLPA chief a sambo doll is the same guy who crafts his personal brand around the image of Chucky.
But the fact that Gruden felt free enough to insult the appearance and intelligence of NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith (who is also Black) in a message to Bruce Allen (then the WFT’s highest-ranking executive) over a corporate server not only confirms what most Black people around the game have long figured (this is what these white folk really think about us). It proves that Black people aren’t crazy for thinking that they’re being denied opportunities in the league because the white ruling class have no interest in sharing power with them.
You can say Gruden’s words don’t matter. But consider his 15-year track record: There are no young Black assistants in his coaching tree; Willie Shaw is the only Black person Gruden’s ever retained as a coordinator – and Shaw only lasted a couple seasons.
For all of Gruden’s outsize reputation as an offensive wunderkind, he has never developed a Black quarterback. Shaun King, a Tony Dungy-era holdover who led Tampa to the playoffs in his second year in the NFL, was effectively doomed when Gruden stuck with an over-the-hill Brad Johnson. In Oakland he famously bypassed an opportunity to sign Colin Kaepernick (whose social justice-driven activism we now know the coach vehemently opposed) and instead signed Nathan Peterman, who is white and quite possibly the worst quarterback of all time. For good measure Gruden cut Marquette King, one of the few Black punters in NFL history and a solid special teams contributor, for seemingly no other reason than being too outspoken and outgoing for his position. And he found space on his roster for Richie Incognito, a confirmed bully who was suspended for intimidating a Black former Dolphins teammate with racial slurs.
Here’s a refrain the coach is always coming back to, that he can only win with “his guys.” And while it’s true that Johnson’s quarterbacking was just steady enough to guide Gruden’s Bucs to a title in 2002, it’s also true that none of that success would’ve been possible without the Hall of Fame defensive personnel and innovative Cover-2 scheme put in place by the team’s previous head coach, Dungy.
Hence why it’s so disappointing to watch Dungy, an NBC analyst now, support Gruden during last week’s Sunday Night Football telecast when he better than anyone can say that Gruden’s success was built on the backs of Black men like him.
Take away Dungy’s team, and Gruden would be just another retread coach. In the nine seasons since his resume-making Super Bowl crown, he averaged seven wins while reaching the playoffs twice. And that’s while spending the past three years working with one of his guys – former TV analyst Mike Mayock, who had no prior front office experience when he was hired to replace McKenzie as general manager. Despite the impassioned support Gruden received from other boob-tube chums like Dungy, former Monday Night Football sidekick Mike Tirico and Tim Brown, who played for Gruden in Oakland and Tampa, be clear: these are company men. Let a Black man deign to challenge Gruden’s old-school football conventions or otherwise threaten the absolute power he has held over his teams, and watch how fast he pulls rank.
In Tampa’s alpha male-stuffed locker room Gruden publicly clashed with Warren Sapp, Keenan McCardell and other highly paid veterans. When the Bucs’ Keyshawn Johnson was caught on video yelling at Gruden on the sideline, the explosive culmination of a long-simmering rift, Gruden deactivated the wideout before shipping him off to Dallas. At the time the move was hugely controversial and cemented Johnson’s reputation as a diva. So you can imagine the satisfaction Johnson, now an ESPN analyst, took in seeing Gruden get his comeuppance this week. “He’s always been a fraud to me,” he said. In an infamous 2009 radio interview the brash ex-Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice described Gruden as an insincere “scumbag” who is quick to discard players when they are injured and seemingly no longer useful to him.
Then of course Gruden’s second tour with the Raiders kicked off with him forcing out Mack when he demanded to be paid as much as other top defenders. After trading two first-round picks for Mack, the Bears signed him to a six-year, $141m extension – a bargain in retrospect. Heading into this season Pro Football Focus had Mack ranked as the sixth-best player in the entire league. So it fits that Gruden’s coaching career ended last week with a loss to Chicago, which saw Mack compile eight tackles and a sack. Never mind that two years ago Gruden told reporters he “cried for three days” after the blockbuster trade. That’s about as believable as the apology he offered up earlier this week when his emails were just racist and, thus, survivable.
It doesn’t take some special X-ray to see if Gruden has a racist bone in his body. If his emails don’t make that plain, his actions sure do. For a coach who owed his position to nepotism and the circumvention of the NFL’s diversity, equity and inclusion hiring practices, it’s too easy to attribute success to smarts and laugh off bigoted emails between peers with hiring sway as harmless banter. But in his dealings with McKenzie and others in his immediate orbit, Gruden long ago told us where he thinks a Black man’s place in football should be. And you have to admit his actions went well beyond words.