Jon Gruden's fall is a warning to the NFL

October 14, 2021

A Wall Street Journal report that longtime NFL head football coach Jon Gruden used racist language to characterize the Black head of the NFL players union in an email sent in 2011 demonstrates the distance between the league's efforts to embrace anti-racism and a far more disturbing reality. Gruden resigned Monday as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders after further reports emerged from the New York Times about his use of homophobic and misogynistic language in emails while he worked as an ESPN analyst. He apologized in a statement issued by the Raiders: "I love the Raiders and do not want to be a distraction. Thank you to all the players, coaches, staff, and fans of Raider Nation. I'm sorry, I never meant to hurt anyone."

But Gruden's resignation doesn't settle the NFL's larger issues with race. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gruden -- the widely popular Super Bowl-winning former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- sent one racist email in particular to the president of the Washington Football Team during an owners' lockout during contract negotiations with the NFL Players Association. According to an NFL spokesperson, the email surfaced as part of an NFL review of workplace misconduct at the Washington Football Team.
    In that email, Gruden described NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith as "Dumboriss Smith," who possessed "lips the size of michellin [sic] tires," a reference that reinforces the racist trope of caricaturing the size of Black people's lips. Gruden told the Journal he didn't remember writing the email but didn't dispute having done so. "I'm really sorry," he said. "I was upset. I used a horrible way of explaining it."
      On Friday, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said: "The email from Jon Gruden denigrating DeMaurice Smith is appalling, abhorrent and wholly contrary to the NFL's values. We condemn the statement and regret any harm that its publication may inflict on Mr. Smith or anyone else."

      Historically, White supremacist rhetoric, both during and after antebellum slavery, popularized racist caricatures of Black people that exaggerated their lips, eyes, noses, and speech. Through cartoons, songs, and an assortment of vulgar cultural displays that became known as minstrelsy, Whites denigrated Black dignity in popular culture while simultaneously degrading Black citizenship through public policies, national legislation and court decisions that upheld a racially unjust order.

      Gruden responded to the Journal's report by claiming he uses the phrase "rubber lips" to describe people he thought were lying and saying he did not have "a racial [sic] bone in his body" -- a denial that, despite his apology, strikes a dissonant chord here (especially in combination with his assertion that he doesn't even remember writing something so memorably offensive).
      Smith responded to the controversy with refreshing candor. "This is not the first racist comment that I have heard and it probably will not be the last," wrote Smith. "This is a thick skin job for someone with dark skin, just like it always has been for many people who look like me and work in corporate America," he continued. "Racism like this come from the fact that I'm at the same table as they are and they don't think someone who like me belongs." Smith vowed not to let such racist language define him.

      Smith's response to learning about Gruden's words is significant. He didn't describe himself as "Black," but "someone with dark skin," - a choice of language that in my reading, evokes the problem of colorism in corporate America and society at large. Negative stereotypes against dark-skinned Blacks abound, including in Hollywood, where light-skinned actors are routinely cast, even when portraying historically dark-skinned figures.

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