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Plenty more Jon Grudens to go around in the NFL


Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden resigned last night. This was after a New York Times report revealed years of emails containing his sexist, misogynist and homophobic comments about players, referees, cheerleaders, union leaders. You know, there was a time in Gruden was the young, smiling face of pro football. In addition to being a Super Bowl winning coach, he also had worked as a color commentator for "Monday Night Football." And at one point, he was the highest paid personality on ESPN. Well, now Gruden is gone. But as Kavitha Davidson of The Athletic says, there are still plenty of Grudens in the NFL's sphere of influence. She joins us now via Skype. Welcome.

KAVITHA DAVIDSON: Hi. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Hi. So you open your piece with, you know, look. It's not just Jon Gruden. It's not just limited to one person. Tell us, how do we know that?

DAVIDSON: Well, I think, first of all, anyone who has covered this league for as long as I have - I've been in this business for about eight years now - can just tell you that these are the kinds of things that are said in quiet, in private, at the bar, that kind of thing. It's, I would say - being ashamed of saying things like this or repudiating things like this has not been the norm until now. And it's actually - I don't know - 10 years ago if Jon Gruden gets - has to resign over something like this.

That being said, I think just from a practical level, Jon Gruden was sending these emails to people that he knew wouldn't repudiate him for the kind of language he was using. One of the the main recipients of these emails was Bruce Allen, the former GM of the Washington Football Team.

CHANG: Right.

DAVIDSON: And he knew he had a sympathetic ear there. So I don't - I think that anybody is kidding themselves to think that this is isolated to one man.

CHANG: Yeah. And as we understand it, the NFL, you know, they had been sending these emails from Gruden to the Raiders. Do they say what they were trying to accomplish in doing that? Curious.

DAVIDSON: Not really.


DAVIDSON: You know, so these these emails came out in the midst of an investigation into the Washington Football Team's toxic culture, which came about after reports of sexual harassment and abuse from the front office there and also by members of the media. So that's a really important point here because aside from the racism and the homophobia and the misogyny that was in the language that was used in these emails, Gruden and some of the people he was sending these emails to were also sharing topless photos of women, including cheerleaders, including NFL employees, and that's really important to keep in mind.

CHANG: Well, the big question could be the - I mean, how should the NFL address this? Is there any way the NFL can truthfully distance themselves from Gruden when Gruden is such a product of the league, right?

DAVIDSON: Well, he's absolutely a product of the league. He was the highest-paid coach. He had, you know, he was in the middle of a 10-year, $100 million contract when when he resigned last night. So, you know, the first thing that the NFL needs to do - and I don't think they're going to do this - but The New York Times uncovered some of these emails among a trove of 650,000 emails that league officials had to go through in the course of their investigation into Washington.

There are a lot of people, myself included, who think the NFL should release their findings from from that investigation and from those emails. They had said several months ago when they concluded their investigation that they would not due to the, quote, "sensitive nature" of what they uncovered. And I'm really not sure if what they uncovered could be worse than what all of us are imagining might be in there if we don't see what they actually found.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, can we talk about something a little deeper? Why do you think it seems the NFL just can't walk the walk, even though they are trying ostensibly to talk the talk? What's going on there?

DAVIDSON: The NFL is first and foremost a league that is run by its owners. I would say that in the NBA, for example, it's much more of a player-driven league. The NFL is an old boys club, as I as I wrote my column. The owner - everything is kind of controlled from the top down. And the second reason is - and this is not unique to the NFL, but the NFL is particularly beholden to its sponsors. The Washington Football Team and owner Dan Snyder didn't change their name because of suddenly realizing that name was racist. They had real sponsorship pressure from Pepsi and Nike to do = and FedEx to do so.

So those factors kind of combined along with the fact that the ownership group in the NFL tends to be more politically conservative, frankly, and more, you know, more beholden to these kinds of notions that this kind of language is OK or that, you know, sensitivity to things that we deem offensive now are just a sign of the times of cancel culture, of people getting soft or what have you. So I think that it's really hard for the NFL to grapple with all of that and to reconcile that with the fact that their fan base is going toward a younger and more progressive place.

CHANG: And that is Kavitha Davidson of The Athletic. Thank you very much for joining us today.

DAVIDSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Justine Kenin