As those close to me will attest, I’m a super-fan of professional football. It’s a sport I actually know about, can analyze, study and watch obsessively. Life outside the NFL’s season (about five months or so each yearly) just isn’t the same for me.
And I truly truly love the Jon Gruden whom I got to know — I mean…well, not know as in know personally but know as in television-ly. I first encountered him during his analysis work on Monday Night Football which is now broadcast over ESPN. It’s a venerable institution for football fans as the first deviation from the almost religiously pursued schedule that said pros used to play football on Sunday afternoons only. Saturday, in case you didn’t know, is for college. Anyway, now the pros play on Sunday nights and Thursday nights as well. So that Monday night break-through was heavy.
Those night games are national games which means they involve teams I, as a New Yorker, don’t always get to see. They’re the crown jewel of this televised sport.
For almost a decade, Gruden (a respected veteran coach himself) did the analysis on Monday games and he was nothing short of brilliant. The job of analyst is complicated on these national games because the analyst has to do several jobs and do them very well.
Football is among the most intricate and complex sports people play. There are 22 people on the field and, in every play, each of them has an assignment that changes with each play. An offense or defense has a play-book that tells each player where to line up and what to do with each play and each book usually has over 130 plays. Those who make fun of football players or consider them dumb brutes who make money beating each other up need only take heed: try memorizing 130 formations involving 10 of your team-mates and descriptions of where you need to go, what you need to do, how you need to run or block or move if you’re on the offense or how you need to defend or attack and line up to disguise what you’re going to do if your on the defense. Add to that the adjustments you need to make when, as happens often, your side doesn’t guess what the other side is doing and you’re either swamped with big men tackling if you’re on offense or, on defense, left flat-footed watching an opposing player backs as they run into the end-zone.
It’s mind-boggling and the analyst’s job is to explain all that. With one look at absolute chaos that ensues when a ball is snapped and a play begins, the analysts have to understand what different people did to make a play successful or not. Then they have to explain it for lay-people, like me, to understand it. They must do this in a half minute or so based on what they saw ten seconds before.
Most analysts are former coaches or top players (usually quarterbacks, the on-field coordinators of the offense). For much of his pre-television career, Gruden coached a team called the Raiders who made their home in Oakland. After that, he applied his coaching experience to his brilliant analysis for a decade.
That greatness and the fact that he has done a lot of his coaching with the Raiders makes his own story all the more tragic and bizarre. The Raiders football franchise is one of the most forward-looking and aggressively inclusive franchises in all of sports. Its history shows that: first black head coach, one of the first Latino coaches, and indigenous quarterback followed by a Chicano quarterback on a team that had more black people during the 70s than any other and has had several women in the front office.
For most of that history, the Raiders eschewed the lure of big city money to play in Oakland, the working class cousin in the Bay Area family whose black community birthed major organizations and campaigns of the black rights and liberation movements (most prominently the Black Panther Party).
I personally truly admired Jon Gruden and craved those Monday night games partly to hear him analyze the game and enhance my understanding and enjoyment of it. I think a lot of people had a similar experience.
In a decade of emails, during his years as a tv analyst, the guy made racist statements, including making fun of a black league official’s lips (comparing them to Michelin tires). He insulted and lamented the inclusion of gay men into the league and denounced women referees. He said horrible things about players who expressed progressive political opinions. His language was frightfully ignorant and downright filthy. He attacked people he disagreed with or who contradicted his perspectives on what football players should be. In short, this golden boy of sports broadcasting revealed himself as a nasty, mean-spirited fool.
Some have reacted by expressing “pain” and I know just how they feel because that’s my reaction. One of my heroes hates my guts! How could this happen? Anybody but Gruden!
It gives you pause but also raises some real questions. How can a guy be inside a culture like that of the Raiders and maintain such repugnant attitudes. How could the league, knowing what this man thinks, allow him to coach? Why hasn’t anyone said anything up to now? What’s it feel like to be a black player under Gruden, suspecting those attitudes (because we can tell when they’re there). Or what about Carl Nassib, the first NFL player to come out as gay, who is a defensive linesman for — yep! — the Las Vegas Raiders?
Or the scarier question: how many more Grudens are there among NFL coaches, staff and front office people and, for that matter, on-field officials? It’s not a silly question because remember that this is the league that destroyed the career of quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during a song. It was show of backwards thinking and repressive nastiness, the kind of black-ball that should be a thing of the past.
Beneath the veneer of “entertainment” and “achievement” and “individual success” that professional sports project to its prospective fandom, these are companies run by very rich white men. They’re not all dumb so when the tide clearly turns socially and they think their revenue will be affected, their public faces change. This year, they’re all talking about combating racism and allowing their players to have progressive slogans on their helmets and even doing special events that celebrate “our diversity” or “our national quest for equality”.
But this is the same group of guys who banned Kaepernick, fined teams whose players put anything social on any part of their uniform, shunned gay players (who had to remain in the closet) and often protected players who engaged in abusive behavior with women in their private lives.
In fact, the Washington team, with whose owner Gruden was emailing when he wrote all that filth, refused to drop a name that is a repulsive, racist insult to the original people of this country and a sadistic reminder of the genocide they experienced. In fact, the owner spent years insisting that the name would never change. Why? Why not change? What not bend? Why not adjust?
This is the League, we now learn, that injected a clause in its players’ national contract that measured black players’ “normal intelligence” as lower than that of white players in order to escape responsibility for many cases of brain damage. That clause has just been removed through litigation with the NFL Players Association.
My suspicion is that, deep down, the league’s answer to the why question would be the same as Gruden’s. Over the last 30 years a battle has raged between players of color (an increasing majority of some sports) and white owners — it expresses itself over salaries and benefits and schedules and rules and sometimes, as has been the case recently, over the survival of the communities from which these players come. Those are neighborhoods the owners don’t visit and maybe have never seen.
Professional sports is a workplace and its conditions are among the worst in the society. Sure, these athletes are highly paid but these franchises are spectacularly lucrative and the percentage of total league income the athletes get is very small. What’s more, these guys aren’t normal people — they are the best in the world at what they do, spectacular mixtures of intellect, response, strength and flexibility doing weekly what 99 percent of us wish we could do once in our lives.
Still, the old white men tell them what to do in almost every aspect of their professional lives and the players have to do it. If they rebel, they are punished. When the great Marshawn Lynch (who comes from Oakland) refused to do dumb press conferences after every game, he was fined by the league. Why? Because the league’s relationship with the media companies is based, in part, on dumb, meaningless quotes that players give reporters for reporters to use in their articles. You can’t discuss a game as complex and intricate as football in 15 second sound bites so Lynch, a man of unflailing integrity throughout his career, decided not to try. He had to pay for that moment of truth.
There are many many examples of dumb stuff the owners make the players do but the point is that it sets up a dynamic: people at the top of football (and many of its coaches) tend to range from politically myopic to downright reactionary while most of its players are actually politically progressive.
They practice their intricate art in an atmosphere of detente.
It’s becoming more clear every day that the detente is now over. It’s over in many corners of our society where these struggles are raging and the resulting ravage to people on both sides is never pretty. It’s heartbreaking and, in some cases, unnecessarily damaging as with Senator Al Franken’s removal from the Senate for a couple of juvenile sexually inappropriate acts. Denunciation and a collective “you’re a jerk!” would have provoked an apology and taught a lesson while preserving the position of one of the Senate’s most intelligent and progressive members. Does anybody really believe we didn’t need him?
In Gruden’s case, he should be removed from any position of authority and used as a piece of evidence in a deeper public discourse and investigation into how “America’s sport” is actually a brutal business involving a brilliant but brutal sport played by men who are employed by other men usually with reactionary politics who often suspect that their players are lower life forms.
I don’t think the NFL can avoid that investigation.