Gruden resigned earlier this week after reports surfaced that he used racist, homophobic and misogynistic language in emails sent years ago while he worked as an ESPN analyst.
He reportedly belittled the intelligence of the president of the NFL players’ union, who is Black, while saying he “has lips the size of michellin [sic] tires.” He also reportedly called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a “p*ssy” and a “f*ggot,” among other offensive comments.
Gruden has apologized, saying “I had no racial intentions with those remarks at all.”
But there is a bitter irony behind the coach of the Raiders becoming the focal point of a controversy over racism and intolerance in pro football.
The Raiders’ identity is built on being the most racially progressive and inclusive team in the NFL. The “Silver & Black” has always been, as one commentator said, about “the full rainbow.”
The Raiders have broken one barrier after another
The Raiders, who were based in Oakland and Los Angeles before relocating to Las Vegas in 2020, were practicing diversity and inclusion before those terms became commonly used.
They were the first team in the modern NFL to hire a Black head coach: Art Shell, in 1989.
They were the first NFL team to hire a Latino head coach: Tom Flores, in 1979.
They were the first team to hire a woman as chief executive: Amy Trask, in 1997.
And they broke ground on the field as well as off.
They were the first team to start a Latino quarterback — also Tom Flores.
Jim Plunkett, a Mexican-American, led the Raiders to two NFL titles in the 1980s, becoming the first minority quarterback to win the Super Bowl. He remains the only Latino to be named Super Bowl MVP.
And Carl Nassib, a Raiders defensive end, earlier this year became the first active player in league history to announce he is gay.
Gruden’s emails weren’t just embarrassing. They dishonored the legacy of the franchise that he inherited as head coach.
Their franchise has working-class roots
Gruden also insulted Raiders fans, otherwise known as Raider Nation. There is no NFL fan base quite like them.
In the hyper-masculine world of the NFL, there may be some who weren’t offended by Gruden’s comments. But the Raiders have traditionally been embraced by those who see themselves as outsiders. Raider fans have included everyone from Black Panther co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to gangsta rappers such as Ice Cube to a devoted army of Mexican-American supporters.
Much of the team’s identity was formed in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was based in Oakland. It’s impossible to disentangle the Raiders’ reputation from its ties to this working-class city, says Peter Richmond, author of “Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders.”
If the Dallas Cowboys were known as “America’s team,” the Raiders were “America’s badasses” — a collection of misfits and renegades who wouldn’t fit on other NFL teams that emphasized conformity and militaristic discipline.
“From the very beginning, as the also-ran team in the Bay Area, representing an industrial multiracial town lying a couple of bridges away form a gentrified cultural capital, the Raiders appeared to underclasses,” Richmond said in a New Yorker magazine interview.
“In the seventies, when the team was half African-American, the stands in the Coliseum were equally black and white, and the tailgating parties the players joined in on after every game in the parking lots were always multiracial.”
And there was no other NFL owner quite like the late Al Davis, who gave the franchise its swashbuckling identity.
Davis was a civil rights pioneer on the gridiron. A colorful character who sported sunglasses and slicked-back hair, Davis in the 1960s refused to allow his team to play in cities where Whites and black players were required to stay in separate hotels.
He also recruited some of the Raiders’ best-known players from historically Black colleges and universities at a time when most NFL teams ignored those schools.
Some pointed to Davis’ upbringing to explain why he championed being inclusive when it wasn’t popular. As a teenager in New York City, he watched Jackie Robinson endure racist taunts as the first Black major league player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
“He grew up in New York, he was Jewish, and obviously there was tension with ethnicity,” his son Mark Davis, the current Raiders’ owner, once said. “He always knew about how different cultures are affected by other people’s antagonism. He felt it as well.”
Gruden’s downfall is part of a bigger NFL problem
The norm-busting culture that Davis built for the Raiders franchise seems increasingly out of step with the modern corporate NFL, which has become a multibillion-dollar business.
The US is rapidly diversifying, but the NFL is still run overwhelmingly by White men. Earlier this year, USA Today reported that of the 327 full-time coaches and general managers hired in the NFL since 1990, only 40 were Black and brown.
The NFL has increasingly become identified with politically conservative White values. One report found that NFL owners’ campaign donations in the 2020 election cycle went nearly 9-1 to Republicans, including former President Trump.
Many of these NFL owners are out of step with the racial activism embraced by a new generation of players. After Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem before a game in 2016 to protest racial injustice, sparking similar protests by other NFL players, the league instated a policy prohibiting players from protesting on the field during the anthem. The NFL said any player who didn’t comply would be subject to punishment.
The NFL is now filled with players who grew up in an era of Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd video. About 70% of the NFL’s players are Black. The optics of a coaching fraternity made up of virtually all White men like Gruden bossing mostly Black and brown men around seems more anachronistic with each passing day.
The contemporary sports world has changed as well. With the help of social media, more players in the NFL, NBA and other professional sports now speak out on hot-button issues and exercise more financial control over their careers.
These two cultures within the modern NFL — majority-White owners versus majority-Black-and-brown players — are on a collision course. Gruden’s resignation won’t erase that tension. It will manifest itself in other ways.
Gruden’s resignation also won’t erase another bitter irony.
Al Davis and the Raiders were ahead of their time in the 1970s when they ignored the racial and gender stereotypes that had held the NFL back for years when it was a segregated league.
The comments attributed to Gruden suggest, though, that racism, sexism and homophobia still moves the chains in NFL circles. So do the numbers when you look at who runs the league.
It took a Raiders coach, of all people, to remind us that 40 years after the badass Raiders ruled pro football, the egalitarian spirit that’s central to the team’s mystique is still a rarity in the NFL.