A few years ago, NFL Films released a compilation called “Jon Gruden’s Best Mic’d Up Moments.”
For twenty minutes, Coach Gruden berates his players, needles his colleagues and flips out every time something doesn’t go his way. Which is a lot of flipping out.
In any other professional context, any random thirty seconds of this stuff would get your key card cancelled by executive order of the HR department. But in football, this kind of unhinged demagoguery is considered high art.
One of the standout bits shows Gruden floating across the practice field, boring his eyes into a passing receiver who’s ticked him off.
“You’re like my wife when you get in space,” Gruden growls. “You just get lost.”
Since NFL Films is to football what the USO is to the American military, we can presume someone up the chain of command loved that line.
When Gruden is running up and down the sidelines, screw faced and shrieking, telling the idiot officials to go blankety-blanking-blank themselves, they must love that, too.
When Gruden is sidling up beside his own players, whispering to them in his faux-southern drawl, taking evident pleasure in threatening their livelihoods if they don’t start impressing him, then that must also have passed through the NFL’s quality control.
And yet today, the league and its bucket brigade in the press is shocked – shocked, I tell you – that a guy who got famous being a professional boor is also a real-life boor. Who could have seen that one coming?
Gruden was undone by that scourge of the technologically unsavvy – the chain email.
He’d been sending them back and forth with a group of football and football-adjacent hangers-on. One of those correspondents was former Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen. Allen’s emails were collected as part of a league investigation into misconduct in the Washington organization.
In those e-mails, Gruden comes off like a meathead time-warped in from the last moment jocks ruled the Earth, circa 1990. (Which is what Gruden, aged 58, is.)
Even the slurs – ‘queers’, ‘pussies’ – are from another era. Gruden sounds like an Andrew Dice Clay set from back when Andrew Dice Clay was a thing – coarse, unfunny and mean-spirited.
You know what is funny? That Gruden seemed to believe that he could bluff his way through the problem.
At first, only one e-mail was reported on. In it, Gruden makes a crude joke about the appearance of NFL Players’ Association president DeMaurice Smith, who is Black.
“I’m not a racist,” Gruden said when asked about it after Sunday’s Las Vegas Raiders’ game. “I feel good about who I am and what I’ve done my entire life.”
After a bit more in that vein, Gruden finished by saying, “ … I don’t want to keep addressing it.”
This was the first time he’d addressed it.
Things started to move quickly. The New York Times reported on many more emails, sent over a period of years, containing all sorts of nasty stuff about Gruden’s colleagues and bosses.
By Monday evening, Gruden had been volun-told to resign from the Raiders.
Gruden’s mistake wasn’t saying the things he said. It was getting caught in public saying them. Cardinal Richelieu’s advice on such matters is more pertinent today than it was when he offered it: Never write a letter and never destroy one.
Gruden’s career is temporarily over. I say temporarily because football loves a meathead. As long as Gruden is willing to go on a six-month journey of self-discovery and learning (i.e. a long beach holiday whilst staying off social media), there will be a place for him somewhere in broadcasting.
Everyone comes out of this looking stupid – Gruden, the Raiders, Washington, everyone who ever hired or promoted this guy.
The most trenchant criticism of Gruden was offered by one of his former players, Keyshawn Johnson: “He’s just always been a fraud to me. From day one, he’s been a used-car salesman.”
It’s the sort of thing Jon Gruden would have said back when he was Jon Gruden.
At some point, everyone in football celebrated Gruden’s antics, so everyone in and around football loses in this.
The only beneficiary is the NFL – not its individual components, but the monolith that is the league.
Football is populated largely by knuckleheads. They come in all shapes, sizes and political affiliations, but are bound to together by their knucklehead tendencies. It was ever the way, and will always be so.
While the current media culture tilts temporarily to the left, football needs to make some small adjustments. Not in the way it behaves – Gruden’s greatest hits are proof of that. But in how it appears.
The easiest way to accomplish that is burnt offerings. Every once in a while, someone gets tied to a metaphoric stake and lit up. This is a voluntary position – the league only has to wait for someone to be foolish enough to bring their own stake to the fire.
Gruden is the perfect sacrifice – getting past his sell-by date; out of step with the league’s new talking points; too loud and self-regarding, even by pro-football standards.
Why else do you think they leaked those emails? It wasn’t a sudden attack of conscience. It was a controlled burn.
The same media who put Gruden on a pedestal when he was becoming the broadcast heir to John Madden will now spend the next couple of days telling everyone they knew he was a bad seed the whole time.
That isn’t change. This is the Circle of Media Life. It’s how the league survives in a time of disquiet. It keeps people focused on individuals rather than the whole, while contributing to the soap opera around the sport.
The trick to pulling this off is continuing to be shocked. Despite celebrating people who act like oafs, declare you have zero tolerance of oafish behaviour. Once some oaf wanders into your crosshairs, make a great show of taking him down. Find some new oafs. Wash, rinse, repeat.