But Gruden’s freefall — though deserved — should also be recognized as one of the all-time misdirection plays in league history. The disgraced coach is collateral damage from a 10-month investigation that validated reports of Washington’s culture of sexual and verbal harassment of female employees under the stewardship of owner Dan Snyder.
In July, the NFL fined the Washington Football Team $10 million over its workplace culture — a pittance for a club valued at $4.2 billion. Snyder was temporarily removed from day-to-day business operations but not formally suspended. While the white-hot light of truth torches Gruden, other findings of the league’s investigation remain buried — and Snyder remains unscathed.
Locker rooms are full of testosterone-fueled, emotionally stunted young men and their equally jocular coaches. Yet as ugly as Gruden’s emails were, he never had an owner’s power. It was Snyder who lorded over a warped corporate culture, where staffers secretly produced and shared topless photos and videos of cheerleaders. It was Snyder who vowed never to give in to protests over Washington’s slur of a team name and who went through the motions of complying with an NFL rule to provide opportunities for coaches of color when he had already hired a White head coach.
In 2009, a sham interview was orchestrated with Jerry Gray, the team’s defensive backs coach. This was done to satisfy the NFL’s “Rooney Rule,” which seeks to ensure that minority coaches receive opportunities when jobs come up. Except the job had already been given to Mike Shanahan, a fact Gray learned only years later.
The New York Times article that first detailed Gruden and Allen’s emails includes a 2015 screed in which they mocked a congressional bill aimed at forcing Washington to change its offensive team name. Snyder kept Allen around partly because of his desire to keep the name. In 2013, Snyder and Allen brought in as a consultant the latter’s brother, George Allen, the other son of the late legendary coach who took Washington to its first Super Bowl. Yes, that George Allen, the former Virginia senator infamous for slurring an American of Indian descent at a campaign rally and who once kept a noose and Confederate flag in his law office. He was to convince the National Congress of American Indians that the team name honored their heritage.
It was 2020 before the team finally bowed to sponsor and societal pressure and gave up the slur — and there still has been no genuine apology to Native Americans.
Snyder has no real remorse. Having sacrificed his latest general manager or team president; having presided over a toxic, top-down culture for so long, he just moves on amid the wreckage of careers and personal lives. He has never understood that while change is certain, growth is optional.
When societies and organizations address historical wrongs, those that have done so most effectively engage in a common understanding of history and the facts. They do this to avoid repeating mistakes.
If you’re going to start doing the right thing when it comes to hiring qualified coaches and executives of color; if you’re going to respect women in the workplace and Native Americans; heck, if you’re going to hire a team president who doesn’t spout anti-gay sentiments and email images of half-naked women — team employees or not — to his Neanderthal friends, you need to take accountability for your role in all the bad. Own your part.
And after the first step of doing the right thing, you have to remember that for many decades you did the wrong thing.
It’s unconscionable that neither Snyder nor the organization has condemned the emails or Allen (who did not return texts and a phone call seeking comment).
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must be held accountable, too. Strange that of the 650,000 documents examined during the league’s investigation, the only emails leaked are those that detonated the legacies of Allen and Gruden — emails in which Gruden referred to Goodell with homophobic slurs and accused of him pressuring the then-St. Louis Rams into drafting the league’s first openly gay player.
For years, Goodell protected Snyder over the Washington team name. He supported Snyder’s decision to keep it until corporate winds blew in the other direction. By not releasing the rest of the documents compiled in the league’s investigation, Goodell and the NFL are again protecting Snyder.
Years ago, after a 3-13 eyesore of a season, a longtime staffer to Snyder told me: “Any man who treats people as badly as that man treats people has karma coming to him.” But the only person to be held accountable so far is the now-former coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. Snyder still owns this team. There is no karma in that.