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Jon Gruden intends “to burn the [NFL’s] house down”

The headline to ESPN’s new story about the emails that triggered the ouster of Raiders coach Jon Gruden focuses on the connection between the emergence of Gruden’s words from a decade earlier and Commanders owner Daniel Snyder’s decision to sell the team. But, frankly, anyone who had been paying attention to the story knew that Snyder had avoided the worst-case scenario until the Gruden emails were leaked. That specific development attracted the attention of Congress, which started an investigation that eventually led to Snyder having no real choice but to cash out.

The real news, based on a careful consumption and digestion of the lengthy article, comes from the still-unresolved question of who leaked the Gruden emails — and from Gruden’s passionate pursuit of using the civil justice system in Nevada “to burn the house down.”

Gruden has insisted all along that the league office leaked the emails. If/when Gruden’s lawsuit against the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell proceeds beyond the question of whether Gruden must submit to the league’s secret, rigged, kangaroo court of arbitration ultimately controlled by Goodell, Gruden will have a chance to conduct discovery and track down the truth.

And, frankly, the discovery process surely will track down the truth. Unless the emails were sent to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times through burner phones and/or other entirely secret, untraceable mechanisms, an expert in digital forensics working for Gruden’s lawyers eventually will find the trail of electronic breadcrumbs that resulted in the emails being sent to the media.

After reading the full ESPN story, here’s my working theory. And this is just my own idea, as gleaned from ESPN’s reporting, not statements of fact. (In other words, don’t sue me, Dan.) First, it’s possible that Snyder directed the disclosure of the Gruden emails to Goodell as a clumsy peace offering, knowing that Goodell and Gruden had a history of animosity and that Goodell would appreciate the opportunity to rid the league of Gruden, for good. Second, it’s possible that once Goodell saw the emails and realized they could be used to force Gruden out, Goodell embarked on an effort to use the emails to squeeze Raiders owner Mark Davis into getting rid of Gruden.

Along the way, there were two potential incidental benefits. First, the timing of the initial leak (which included a racial trope directed at NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith) helped Smith win a narrow vote to keep his job. (Per the ESPN article, Smith privately bragged that he was responsible for leaking the email.) Second, the incident gave Goodell and the league a chance to create the impression that it was acting swiftly and decisively when faced with evidence of racist commentary by a head coach.

The most intriguing fact as to the possibility that the league leaked the emails comes from the two-step process of placing the information in the media. After the first email (regarding Smith) landed with the Wall Street Journal on a Friday afternoon, Goodell and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash called Davis.

“You have to do something,” Goodell told Davis, per the ESPN report.

“What are you going to do?” Pash said.

“There’s more emails coming,” Goodell said. “Something has to be done.”

When nothing was done after the first email was released, more emails landed with the New York Times on Monday, three days later. And those emails were the ones that forced Gruden out.

The circumstantial evidence suggests that the league orchestrated the leaks in order to get Davis to act. When he expressed hesitation to act after the first leak, Goodell said more emails are coming. When Davis didn’t heed the warning, more email came. (Arguably, there’s an unexplored extortion angle at play here, given the chain of events and the statements Goodell reportedly made to Davis.)

Also, this paragraph from the ESPN article would tend to support the idea that the leaks came from Goodell or at his direction: “Over the years, Goodell has responded to leaks from inside the league office by assembling his top staff and saying the league would be searching its phones and computers for communications with reporters. But after the Gruden leaks, league sources said, Goodell didn’t hold that type of meeting; it’s unclear why not.”

Ultimately, the ESPN article does not uncover who leaked the emails, but it provides a handy roadmap of potential suspects to Gruden’s lawyers — to the extent they didn’t already know where to start looking for emails, text messages, etc.

Also of interest will be the remainder of the 650,000 emails, from which a small handful were culled and weaponized against Gruden. If the case proceeds in open court, those emails could become public. Gruden reportedly has said that former Washington executive Bruce Allen, the recipient of the Gruden emails, has told Gruden that the 650,000 documents “incriminate everyone in the league.”

If Gruden staves off the league’s effort to force his claims into arbitration, Gruden will acquire massive leverage. The discovery rules applicable to his civil lawsuit could indeed give him the power “to burn the house down.”

That, in turn, could put him in line for an enormous financial settlement — or maybe even a wink-nod understanding that Goodell will expend a chunk of his personal political capital to get Gruden another NFL head-coaching job. (And, yes, Goodell likely has the power to make that happen, if he wants to do it.)

Currently, Gruden is on the fringes of a return to relevance, consulting with the Saints as they acclimate former Gruden pupil Derek Carr to New Orleans. The Saints, we’re told, have gotten no blowback from the league office for associating with Gruden.

Maybe the league office has refrained from chastising the Saints because it is nervous about where this could all be heading. If the league office isn’t nervous about where this could all be heading, maybe it should be.