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GRUDEN IS THE LATEST OLD WHITE GUY TO SHAME HIS DEMOGRAPHIC
What began with Urban Meyer’s illegal-use-of-hands penalty now involves Jon Gruden’s racist slur of NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith in an e-mail, a pattern of OWG misbehavior that dominates sports
For Jon Gruden, a smirk and a smart-ass comment usually disarm all opposition. But not this time, as Chucky rears his ugliest head and faces a career crisis that could — and should — result in his dismissal. In the crudest of racial stereotypes, which cannot be explained away as a 10-year-old mistake, he slurred DeMaurice Smith in an e-mail, writing of the NFL Players Association executive director, “Dumborris Smith has lips the size of michellin (sic) tires.’’
How is Gruden supposed to lead his players, many Black, when they have every right to wonder if he’s a hate-filled racist who also might be assessing their lip sizes? Will there be a boycott, if not a mutiny, in the ranks of the Las Vegas Raiders? And we’re actually supposed to believe Gruden, he of the crap-eating grin, when he claims he uses “rubber lips’’ to “refer to a guy I catch as lying … he can’t spit it out.’’
Said Gruden, who, at 58, is in the fourth season of a $100 million deal that has yet to produce a playoff appearance: “I’m ashamed I insulted De Smith. I never had a racial thought when I used it. ... I'm embarrassed by what's out there. I certainly never meant for it to sound that bad."
The apology is a wretched load of weaksauce, the feeble reach of another ignorant Old White Guy who must have been napping when his college history professor addressed the Jim Crow era and the grotesque caricatures of Black people. Gruden explains the e-mail as a moment of frustration, while the NFL and the union were locked in a 2011 labor impasse. He sent it to Bruce Allen, then the president of the Washington Football Team, when he was out of coaching and in his fledgling years as ESPN’s “Monday Night Football’’ analyst. “That might not have been the best time of my life. I vented a lot,’’ he said. “I never felt we were getting the truth and honesty (in negotiations). I just felt that (former NFLPA chief) Gene Upshaw never would have let it get that far."
The timetable isn’t relevant. Like a reckless troll on social media, Gruden insulted Smith’s intelligence and his facial features. What came to my mind was the institutional bigotry reflected by the racial remarks of Al Campanis, who crashed into infamy when he tried to explain why Major League Baseball had no Black managers or general managers: “No, I don't believe it's prejudice. I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.’’ Amid a national firestorm, the Los Angeles Dodgers immediately removed Campanis from his vice-president position.
Thirty-four years later, Gruden becomes a symbol of how America has not evolved racially. He can claim he has “never had a blade of racism in me,’’ but Smith isn’t buying it. He is far from alone. “This is not the first racist comment that I've heard and it probably will not be the last,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “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. You know people are sometimes saying things behind your back that are racist just like you see people talk and write about you using thinly coded and racist language.
“Racism like this comes from the fact that I'm at the same table as they are and they don't think someone who looks like me belongs. I’m sorry my family has to see something like this but I would rather they know. I will not let it define me.”
The NFL office echoed Smith’s response. “The e-mail from Jon Gruden denigrating DeMaurice Smith is appalling, abhorrent and wholly contrary to the NFL's values,” spokesman Brian McCarthy said. “We condemn the statement and regret any harm that its publication may inflict on Mr. Smith or anyone else.” All eyes shift to Raiders owner Mark Davis, who pulled Gruden out of mothballs when he hasn’t won a playoff game since his Super Bowl title season in Tampa Bay in 2002. His father, Raiders patriarch Al Davis, prided himself on diversity. How can his son, who keeps Al’s memory alive with the lighting of a flame before games at Allegiant Stadium, keep Gruden and still sleep at night?
“The content of an email regarding DeMaurice Smith from Jon Gruden when he worked for ESPN 10 years ago is disturbing and not what the Raiders stand for,’’ Davis said in a Friday statement. “We were first made aware of the email by a reporter and are reviewing it along with other materials provided to us today by the NFL. We are addressing the matter with Coach Gruden and will have no further comment at this time.”
It should deeply disturb Gruden that the document was leaked to the Wall Street Journal. It was found among 650,000-plus e-mails reviewed by NFL senior executives in the league’s investigation of the WFT, then known as the Redskins. Someone in Roger Goodell’s office doesn’t like Gruden. Or, maybe it’s the league’s attempt to protect Smith, viewed in recent years as an NFL labor sympathizer, with players prepared as recently as last week to replace him with a hardball-playing candidate. At this point, with the league’s power and prosperity restored after anxious years, Smith’s future isn’t of utmost importance when the league has long-term labor peace and $113 billion in broadcast money arriving through 2033. But as players absorb Gruden’s raw comments, there may be waves of compassion for Smith.
Unless the Raiders contend for a Super Bowl, unlikely despite a 3-1 start, the reasons to dismiss Gruden outweight any reason to keep him. If you haven’t noticed, the political machinations of locker rooms determine the fate of head coaches throughout sports. An unusual Sunday in the NFL brought scrutiny of locker rooms in Vegas, where the Raiders hosted the Chicago Bears, and in Jacksonville, where The Urban Legend tried to avoid an 0-5 start through the abject humilation and ridicule of a lap-dance tape that could end his coaching career, too.
As it is, the Old White Guy demographic is an endangered cultural species in America. The OWG cause, already undermined by a president who doesn’t like speaking to the people, has been marred recently by a perpetual conga line of high-profile jackasses in sports. In all five cases, the sins were heinous enough by today’s standards to justify significant suspensions from jobs, if not immediate job losses. Yet not even the most voracious social-media mobs can cancel them. Three violators are among the biggest names in coaching, but the OWGs have survived, for now — and, as an OWG myself, I am gobsmacked by it all.
Urban Meyer remains head coach of the Jaguars, despite an illegal-use-of-hands penalty that — upon further review — could constitute sexual harassment, depending on how well our 57-year-old grandfather knew the 24-year-old blonde who was dancing between his legs as he sat on a barstool. In the Jaguars locker room, across a nation obsessed with scandal and even inside his own home, Meyer is the working definition of a dirty old man, much as his wife and daughter publicly try to defend him.
It’s hard to believe owner Shad Khan will let Meyer board the team plane to London this week when, in what could be remembered as the fatal error that tarnishes his coaching legacy, he refused to join his players for the long, miserable ride home after a loss in Cincinnati. By heading to Columbus for his frat-boy romp, Meyer revealed an alarming disinterest in helping the Jaguars out of their winless hole. Would Khan, who never has ruled out moving his beleaguered franchise to England, allow the Meyer fiasco to dominate coverage in the overseas media?
Don’t be shocked if he is ziggied in the next day or so, especially if his players deliver a damning disconnect statement and don’t show up against Tennessee. With a winless start, amid presumably a smattering of booing fans, Khan will have his ammunition — which only would beg questions why he didn’t dismiss Meyer days earlier, rather than issue a public scolding. “His conduct was inexcusable. I appreciate Urban’s remorse, which I believe is sincere,” Khan said last week. “Now, he must regain our trust and respect. That will require a personal commitment from Urban to everyone who supports, represents or plays for our team. I am confident he will deliver.”
We’ve heard Meyer apologize to his family, to the players, to Khan. But why oh why was he so irresponsible to not fly home with the team? “I thought at the time it was a chance for everybody to clear their head, including myself,” he said.
Only victories — a lot of them — will generate trust and respect. In a flurry of blunders as a rookie NFL head coach, Meyer has exhibited no evidence that he belongs in the Big Boys League. Khan is “confident he will deliver’’ only because he’s trying to save face as the Dimwit Who Hired Urban Meyer. All credibility he built as a college legend is gone, fading away with the laughter. Among his few supporters is his wife of 37 years, Shelley, who was at home with the grandkids when Meyer was executing his awkward snap from center at the Urban Chophouse bar.
“This will be my last post on Twitter,” she wrote. “Frankly I don’t need the hate, vitriol, slander, trash that will @ me. We all make mistakes. We are all sinners. If you think you aren’t? Then cast the first stone. … I love you ALL and wish God’s blessings on you. This speed bump won’t affect 37 years together.”
Is it me, or were you thinking Tammy Faye Bakker in that moment?
Meyer’s daughter, Gigi, also defended her father on Instagram. “We all decided we’re gonna move on, alright?” she said. “We’re moving on and life is good. We are blessed. I have the most incredible family in the entire world. The reality of it is, as much of our lives seem different than everybody else’s, we’re still human. We have human things that we deal with, and this is one of those things, but the good news is we know his character, and he’s literally the most incredible person I know in my entire life.’’
At 58, Mark Few continues to coach the Gonzaga basketball team, though he refused to complete field sobriety tests on a drunken night in Idaho last month, presumably because his blood alcohol count was over the legal limit. That’s quite a lesson to teach young men in his nationally acclaimed program: When in doubt, ignore the cops. Yet the university docked Few only for two exhibition games and the regular-season opener — against feared Dixie State — and made sure he’ll be on the sideline Nov. 13 against Texas, another preseason top-10 team.
“I know this impacts our student-athletes and the coaching staff as we begin the season. I understand the severity of my actions and am sorry for the impact this consequence has on our team,’’ Few said. “Thank you again to those who have supported me, my family, and our program throughout this process. Please know that I am committed to learning from this mistake and will work to earn back your trust in me.’’
Another OWG who keeps collecting paychecks is 59-year-old Sean McDonough, who mocked the name of baseball’s presumptive Executive of the Year. During a WEEI radio broadcast of Boston’s wild-card victory over the New York Yankees, McDonough was chit-chatting with his booth partners and asked them about the 107-win San Francisco Giants. Will Flemming mentioned the work of baseball operations boss Farhan Zaidi, the MIT engineering grad who is the first Muslim and Asian American general manager in the four major American sports leagues.
Shot back McDonough, snarkily: “Their GM’s name is ‘High Anxiety’?”
By now, a broadcaster who makes fun of family-given names doesn’t deserve to be a broadcaster. This applies to any media professional who ignorantly injects racially insensitive elements. On MLB’s very own network, 82-year-old analyst Jim Kaat said teams should aim to “get a 40-acre field full of players’’ who look like Yoan Moncada, the Chicago White Sox infielder who hails from Cuba. Intended or otherwise, the comment prompted backlash from viewers who thought Kaat was referencing the Civil War, when the U.S. government reneged on an agreement to give 40 acres of land and a mule to freed slaves.
“Earlier in the game when Yoan Moncada was at the plate, in an attempt to compliment the great player that he is, I used a poor choice of words that resulted in an insensitive and hurtful remark,” Kaat said. “And I'm sorry for that.”
Sorry always seems to be enough for the Old White Guys. At some juncture of 21st-century life, it no longer will suffice. There’s still time, I suppose, for 77-year-old Tony La Russa to get another DUI.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he has gravitated by osmosis to film projects.