The NFL’s Issues Go Far Deeper than Locker Room Talk

On Monday, Oct. 11, Las Vegas Raiders Head Coach Jon Gruden resigned from his position with the team after multiple media outlets reported on misogynistic, homophobic, and transphobic comments that Gruden made in emails with other NFL coaches and executives. If you follow sports news, you’re likely aware of this.

But what might have not made the headlines is that Gruden’s conduct is simply a second-order effect of a deeper, darker culture of misogyny, misuse of power, and inadequate accountability within the world’s most valuable sporting league.

Gruden’s emails were only publicized as the result of an investigation into the Washington Football Team (whose former name was a racial slur), and the team’s persistent history of harassment and mistreatment of female employees. The stories coming out of Washington are horrible  almost too horrible to repeat.

There’s the purposely-lewd version of cheerleader photoshoot footage kept by team employees. The time cheerleaders took a trip to Costa Rica, had their passports taken, and were chosen as escorts by male sponsors of the team. The glass staircase female employees warned each other not to use, because male employees could look up their skirts from below.

The stories out of Washington are as dreadful as any other case of corporate sexual harassment in the country. So with a mountain of evidence and testimony lining up against the Football Team, why is any of this being treated as a story about one man making problematic comments?

This is, of course, not to say that Gruden is innocent in any way. Gruden’s comments — some as recent as 2018 — are reprehensible. But Gruden’s most distasteful conduct is directly linked to the Football Team’s culture of harassment the coach had circulated topless photos of Washington cheerleaders, with former Washington Executive Bruce Allen.

While many will be quick to defend him from being branded a capital-H Homophobe or capital-M Misogynist, the truth is that nobody in the Raiders organization can trust that what Gruden says is what he thinks, especially but not limited to female, gay, and minority employees and players. And that lack of trust extends, to some degree, to other NFL executives and coaches.

It even stretches to reporters: another revealed email shows ESPN’s Adam Schefter, perhaps the league’s foremost reporter, sending a finished draft of an article to Bruce Allen and allowing him to make revisions. (Yes, that Bruce Allen, the one who circulated revealing pictures of his team’s cheerleaders.)

For many fans, a veil has finally been pulled from their eyes that indeed, this really is what the league is like behind closed doors. With that in mind, and with so many of the issues at play here clearly permeating multiple NFL teams, it’s certainly odd that Gruden is the one man who has faced strict public scrutiny for his actions.

On Friday, it went from odd to impossible to believe, as the Associated Press reported that no other personnel aside from Gruden were flagged for their conduct among a trove of 650,000 emails. If anything, it seems that Gruden taking the fall occurred not because he is the only guilty party in the league, but rather that he is a Jenga piece that the NFL can afford to remove without the entire system collapsing in on itself.

It’s easy to have a coach leave a team and convince the public that the problem is isolated to one bad actor; it’s orders of magnitude harder to really begin to chip away at the rot in the league that these scandals have brought to light. The real story, the one that far surpasses the scale of Gruden’s indiscretion, defies easy headlines, would take years to investigate, and would have no easy solutions.

Yet the accountability and massive overhaul that teams like Washington badly need might never come. While the NFL might want to appear now as if it takes a hard line against misconduct within teams, the truth is that the league office exists to promote the interests of the owners, whose 32 teams have a combined valuation of over $110 billion. It’s unlikely that that push would come from fans either — this story, just like all of the previous revelations about Washington’s misconduct, will fall prey to the inevitable churn of the year-round NFL media cycle, and just as many people will tune in on Sundays.

One man who’s had his name come up more than a few times this week is Raiders defensive lineman Carl Nassib. Nassib, who this June became the first active NFL player to come out as gay, will likely have to face media questions and discussion about his former coach’s homophobic comments. Nassib, of course, has nothing to answer for. But his workplace, the NFL, does. If Nassib, or any other player for that matter, is expected to trust their coaches or front office, the league has a long way to go to re-establish the credibility that it has squandered in droves over the past decade.

Image courtesy of Louis Briscese / Travis AFB