- Programming note: Watch "Race In America: A Candid Conversation" on Friday, Oct. 15 after Warriors programming.
Though there are many parallels between the audio recording that provoked Donald Sterling’s expulsion from the NBA and the emails that ended Jon Gruden’s career as a football coach/personality, there is one particular dissimilarity that makes the latter more unnerving.
Only one of them, the guy who owned the Los Angeles Clippers for 33 years, had a documented history of fighting racial discrimination and sexual harassment lawsuits, losing more than a few.
The other limited his expressions of bigotry to his circle of friends, thereby allowing him to maintain a sparkling façade of public credibility.
Gruden’s hateful diatribes – from racism to sexism, from misogyny to homophobia – came from a man thought better than that. A man who kept his toxic opinions mostly on the down-low. His being exposed opened millions of eyes, and many couldn’t help turning toward folks who previously provided little reason for skepticism.
“What happened was a window into the world of how a lot of those guys think: The entitlement. The colorism,” said former NBA star Jamal Crawford, a panelist on “Race in America: A Candid Conversation,” seen Friday night following Golden State Warriors basketball.
Gruden’s emails are about as helpful to sports authority figures as cell-phone videos of cops terrorizing unarmed men, women and children are to the law enforcement community. There are cops who do commendable work, but it’s kind of hard to have faith once you’ve seen a few go off the rails with malicious and even deadly intent.
The murder of George Floyd in May 2020, and the executions of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor several months earlier brought forth a multiracial coalition of folks urging America to be better. The NFL kissed up to the moment, claiming a desire to be part of the solution. The NBA went a few steps further, postponing games and making demands of those in power. The WNBA took the stage with a vengeance, even forcing out a reactionary co-owner.
Consider, then, what Gruden told reporters in August 2020, at the height of global demonstrations pleading for justice and equality.
"There's a lot of hatred out there and it really concerns me," Gruden said. "And I pray that everybody can open their heart and get on the same team. Politically, socially and always. I told our team, especially our leadership, after visiting with them, I want them to take (Saturday) off. I'm going to give them part of Sunday off, to research what's really going on and educate themselves on where we are."
Sounds like an ally, or at least someone who might consider lining up with anti-racists.
Nope. All a show.
Remember Eric Reid? The safety who knelt alongside Colin Kaepernick and continued his peaceful protest after the NFL turned its back on Kaepernick? Gruden thought Reid should be “fired.” Not cut. Not waived. Not bought out. Fired. If it sounds familiar, that’s because the exact verbiage was uttered, in a similar context, by former President Donald Trump.
Another panelist on this episode of “Race in America,” Dr. C. Keith Harrison, a University of Central Florida professor who works closely with the famed Institute for Sport and Social Justice founded by Dr. Richard Lapchick, was not surprised in the least.
“One of the things we’ve been having a national and global dialogue about since Miss Taylor was executed and murdered, and the same for Mr. George Floyd, is ‘What is systemic racism?’ Here we have an example,” he said. “We have a white American male coach beyond comfortable with discriminatory, offensive, hateful, sexist, racist, stereotypical remarks, documented, that coaches in a league with approximately 70 percent or more Black players.”
There are coaches who stand for the right thing and walk it as they talk it. But after the curtain was pulled back on Gruden, it became that much harder for a Black athlete – or, for that matter, an employee in the business world – to assume allyship of the coach or general manager or CEO simply because they smile in your face and pat you on the back.
The result is a closer inspection and listening, and a lot more effort to discover the genuine from the fake.
“Nobody is going to come out in public and say what they think if it’s bigoted, racist or anything like that,” said panelist Shaun Powell, a sportswriter for three decades employed by NBA.com. “The Jon Gruden thing happened because those were private e-mails. We really don’t know what’s in somebody’s heart, what’s in their head. And people aren’t stupid enough to reveal their true colors. There’s too much money at stake, too many reputations at stake.
“We really don’t know – until situations like this happen. The Donald Sterling situation was a private phone call. Jon Gruden was a private email. Until further notice, that’s how we’re going to find out about these things and about people and how they think.”
There is little doubt that, at the least, the thoughts uttered by Gruden threw some white coaches and executives into the awkward position of having to take more care and prudence than ever in building and maintaining the trust of a mostly Black labor force.