What makes his casually superior, straight and center-parted chauvinism so creepy is the traditionalness of his upbringing in the game. Born in Sandusky, Ohio, home of Knute Rockne. Son of a scout and coach. Went to high school in South Bend, Ind., in the shadow of Notre Dame, where his father served as an assistant to the legendary Dan Devine. As a young man he worked for the most iconic and influential coaching-tree franchises: the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers. He spent years employed by ESPN and “Monday Night Football.” They all knew who he was and how he talked. Same with that unctuous scion Bruce Allen and the pervy trading of lewd pictures of topless women. It was learned inside the game.
As NFL-quarterback-turned-observer Sage Rosenfels tweeted, “If you thought that these emails would have been reported to officials by those who were receiving them, well the problem is that these are the same people.”
Gruden is not some bygone relic. He is the current NFL, and as the Las Vegas Raiders head coach he was at the very top of its pay hierarchy. He wrote those things between the ages of 47 and 54, some of them as recently as 2017, and it matters not at all that they are private expressions. In fact, that only makes them worse — there’s an unnerving divergence from his chatty charm-boy act for cameras that won him such rich contracts. He has spent his life culling rewards in a public-facing business, in which 70 percent of player-colleagues are Black and nearly half the audience is women, in which he had every opportunity to grow a respectful heart. His facile, favored-son abuse of position strikes at the heart of the league’s public meaning. He made a farce of it.
The NFL professes to be at least partly about the cultivation of excellence regardless of background, and it fights a constant battle against cliche in that respect. If the league has any real import, if it’s something more than mere forum entertainment, it’s in the message that people should be able to become better; that we’re imperfect and start with unequal gifts but we can strive to be self-made; that, as Aristotle put it, excellence “is a state of character concerned with choice.” At some point, Gruden’s outlook became a willful choice. He chose to view others as servile to him and his blustering legend of manhood. The message: If football can be improving, for a certain brand of privy-council young alpha male it’s also an excuse never to grow up and remain a preening, self-impressed bully forever.
Maybe the most cautionary part of Gruden’s NFL story is the danger of moral vanity. “I don’t have an ounce of racism in me,” he brayed. He said he didn’t have so much as a “blade of it” in him, as if he were a field of grass. Then what was he doing in those emails? Just leaking poison for sport?
It’s another inescapable fact of Gruden’s background that he grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, when many of his peers were soul-searching on the subjects of racism, feminism, militarism and every other -ism. Among the things that happened in that era were some famous social psychology experiments, which hinted that we ordinary people, who conceive of ourselves as decent and anti-racist, should not be nearly so certain of our inherently good and stable characters. We suppose we wouldn’t hurt others, that we would reject any wrongful forms of authority. Then social psychologist Stanley Milgram came along and showed that 65 percent of us would administer electric shocks to a neighbor until they screamed if someone authoritative told us to.
Gruden reminds you of nothing so much as that. Or of Michael Douglas’s character in the movie “Falling Down,” who is so blindly sure of his virtuosity that he doesn’t realize he has become a public menace. “We’re the same, you and me. We’re the same, don’t you see?” a racist storekeeper says to him. Douglas’s character replies, “We are not the same. I’m an American; you’re a sick a------.” And then the cops come for him, and he’s baffled, mystified.
“I’m the bad guy?” he says.
“I’m sorry,” Gruden said in a statement through the Raiders. “I never meant to hurt anyone.”
Gruden’s exposure is a similar inverse fall, with a total lack of awareness that his outlook is slanted or that he might have caused harm with it. It’s a warning to his colleagues, who should ask themselves whether this game has made them the good guys or the bad guys.