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Opinion: Jon Gruden's words spotlight a much deeper problem for the NFL

Peniel JosephPeniel Joseph
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.
The NFL's racial justice efforts fall far shortThe NFL's racial justice efforts fall far short
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.
Smith’s acknowledgment of overhearing past racist insults is also telling. In a sports league where upwards of 70% of the players are African American, the NFL’s paucity of Black head coaches (3 out of 32), general managers (2 out of 32 ), presidents of football operations (one out of 32), and team owners (none) speaks to a staggering lack of representation in the league’s power structures.
Despite Black athletic genius producing billions of dollars in revenue for owners, advertisers, television and cable companies, and assorted supply chains, the NFL has been largely, to say the least, retrograde on matters of racial justice. Colin Kaepernick’s banishment from the sport for taking a knee in respectful protest against police brutality against African Americans exemplified the unequal power relations between the league’s overwhelmingly White owners and the Black players who fill up the box office.
It took arguably the largest social justice movement in American history, alongside a demand from some of the NFL’s biggest Black superstars, to compel Commissioner Roger Goodell to assert that “Black Lives Matter” and take some measured steps to support racial justice, including allowing athletes to speak their mind in a manner that Kaepernick was punished for. The league has finally made a public effort to acknowledge the problem, but as I’ve written, those gestures don’t come close to guaranteeing lasting change.
Yet even as Kaepernick faced umbrage from the league for speaking out against injustice, NFL owners, most notably Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, vociferously supported former President Donald Trump in spite of his consistent denigration, race-baiting and prejudiced comments against the Black community.
All of which is to say that Gruden’s words and fate place the NFL at a familiar crossroads.
This is not a call to “cancel” Gruden. But a deeper level, it is past time for the NFL to take bolder steps, commensurate with the systemic problem of racism that continues to affect the league. This warrants major overhaul of the league’s front office hiring practices, along with greater public transparency and accountability measures regarding inclusivity efforts for the vendors, affiliates and supply chains that form part of the massive financial ecosystem of this billion-dollar enterprise (which, by the way, enjoys a federal antitrust exemption).
Gruden’s words are more than just offensive, and their broader importance doesn’t recede with his resignation. Despite it, they represent a reminder of how little progress has been made since they were written in 2011 regarding the “place” of Black bodies in an environment ruled by powerful White interests. Without institutionalizing a framework to ensure a pathway for potential Black talent into the league’s institutions of power, this unequal racial status quo will continue.
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