In emails written between 2011 and 2018, Jon Gruden, then an ESPN analyst and past and future N.F.L. head coach, said that the leader of the N.F.L. players union, who is Black, had “lips the size of Michelin tires,” and used homophobic and misogynist language to denigrate people in football including Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner. It says a lot about the culture of football that it took years for these emails to come to light. The emails shocked me, but when I look at the bigger picture, I realize they shouldn’t have.
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.
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.
Of course, the language and opinions of Jon Gruden are not the language and opinions of all coaches and football executives. Even so, some have not only shielded, but rewarded, this kind of behavior for years. Many in the league have learned nothing from Colin Kaepernick, the Black Lives Matter movement’s influence in sports, the advocacy of the W.N.B.A., Carl Nassib and so many others who have moved the world of sports forward.
Gruden’s resignation this week as the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders on the heels of reporting on the emails is merely a reaction to damage that’s already been done. The N.F.L. has to take proactive steps in supporting its players, staff and spectators.
Too often, the burden of trying to fix the league’s shortcomings has been placed on the shoulders of players and players alone. In the conversation around the lack of openly L.G.B.T.Q. players, the question is always, “Are N.F.L. locker rooms ready for an L.G.B.T.Q. player?” It’s never, “What can N.F.L. officials do to make sure that players feel comfortable coming out?”
In the conversation around police brutality and systemic racism affecting Black people and people of color, the question was, “Will players kneeling during the national anthem hurt ticket sales or decrease views?” It wasn’t, “What can coaches and executives do to meaningfully support the causes their players care about?”
Rarely does the conversation focus on executives and owners, the real roots of the league’s continuing disappointments. After all, owners are the ones who hire coaches like Gruden, treating them as football royalty, giving them contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.
At the same time, executives like Goodell “perform” change, rather than actually carrying it out. They add phrases like “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” to end zones, but do little about the fact that in a league where hundreds of players are Black, only three head coaches are Black. The Grudens of the world publicly praise a player’s coming out — “I learned a long time ago what makes a man different is what makes him great,” Gruden said in June when Nassib, a defensive end for the Raiders, announced that he was gay — as they use homophobic slurs in private. League officials claim they value equal opportunities for women when so many have been excluded from staff positions.
Talk and performative action is not enough. The remedy to a system that routinely reinforces racism, homophobia and sexism is change, inside and out and top to bottom. Every decision — from hiring coaches to signing players to funding and creating social initiatives — needs to be made with the serious and intentional desire to be diverse, inclusive and long-lasting.
Resignations, words painted onto fields, social media messaging and marketing are shallow and temporary. To fight years of systemic bigotry, we need years of intentionality and accountability. Fortunately, the N.F.L. has more than enough people and funding to make meaningful and long-lasting investments in making football a home to L.G.B.T.Q. people, both out and closeted, to Black people, to people of color and to women. The N.F.L. can and should be a home for everyone.
But the responsibility to create that home should not fall solely on the marginalized. Ultimately, the driving force behind creating an N.F.L. for all has to be those who have benefited from the league’s current culture. To do that, in the words of the N.F.L. end zone message, it takes all of us.
Ryan “R.K.” Russell played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and was the first active N.F.L. player to come out as bisexual. He is working on a memoir about that experience.
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