In emails written between 2011 and 2018, Jon Gruden, then ESPN analyst and former and future NFL head coach, said the leader of the NFL players’ union, who is black, had “lips from the waist up. Michelin tires ”and used homophobes. and misogynistic language to denigrate football people, including Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner. It says a lot about football culture that it took years for these emails to come to light. The emails shocked me, but when I look at the big picture I realize they shouldn’t have been.
As a former NFL player who is black and bisexual, I am familiar with the culture exemplified by Gruden’s comments and the complicity of silence within the sports industry that kept his emails a secret. Culture goes beyond a single head coach: Gruden’s emails are not just a fanatic’s hateful rant, but a written story of the vast mistreatment of marginalized voices throughout the NFL
The long delay in disclosure of these emails, coupled with their conversational nature, suggests that other NFL members are, at best, tolerant of these divisive views. At worst, they share them.
Of course, the language and opinions of Jon Gruden are not the language and opinions of all football coaches and managers. Even so, some have not only protected, but rewarded, this kind of behavior for years. Many in the league haven’t learned anything from Colin Kaepernick, the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement in sports, the advocacy of the WNBA, Carl Nassib and so many others who have moved the world of sports forward.
Gruden’s resignation this week as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, just after reporting the emails, is just a reaction to the damage already done. The NFL must take proactive steps to support its players, staff and spectators.
Too often the onus of trying to correct the league’s shortcomings has been placed on the shoulders of players and lone players. In the conversation about the lack of openly LGBTQ players, the question is always, “Are the NFL locker rooms ready for an LGBTQ player?” It’s never “What can NFL officials do to make sure players feel comfortable going out?” “
In the conversation about police brutality and systemic racism affecting blacks and people of color, the question was, “Will players kneeling during the national anthem hurt ticket sales or diminish views?” It wasn’t, “What can coaches and managers do to meaningfully support the causes that matter to their players?” “
Rarely does the conversation center on leaders and owners, the real roots of the league’s continuing disappointments. After all, it’s the owners who hire coaches like Gruden, treat them like football kings, give them contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.
At the same time, leaders like Goodell are “making” the change, rather than actually making it. They add phrases like “End Racism” and “We need all” to end the zones, but don’t do much about the fact that in a league where hundreds of players are black, only three head coaches are black. Grudens around the world publicly praise a player’s coming out – “I learned a long time ago what makes a man different, that’s what makes him great,” Gruden said in June when winger Nassib defensive end of the Raiders, announced he was gay. – because they use homophobic slurs in private. League officials say they value equal opportunities for women when so many have been excluded from staff positions.
Speech and performative action are not enough. The remedy for a system that regularly reinforces racism, homophobia and sexism is change, inside and out and from top to bottom. Every decision – from hiring coaches to signing players to funding and creating social initiatives – must be made with a serious and intentional desire to be diverse, inclusive and sustainable.
Resignations, words painted on the fields, social media posts and marketing are superficial and temporary. To fight against years of systemic bigotry, we need years of intentionality and accountability. Fortunately, the NFL has more than enough people and funding to make significant and lasting investments in making football a home for LGBTQ people, both out and in, black people, people of color and women. . The NFL can and should be a home for everyone.
But the responsibility for creating this home should not lie solely with the marginalized. Ultimately, the driving force behind creating an NFL for everyone must be those who have benefited from the current culture of the league. To do that, in the words of the NFL end zone message, it takes all of us.
Ryan “RK” Russell played for the Dallas Cowboys and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and was the first active NFL player to become bisexual. He is working on a dissertation on this experience.
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