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Jon Gruden’s emails were jarring. To some in the NFL, they weren’t surprising.

Jon Gruden was working for ESPN when he sent the emails containing offensive language and views. (John Hefti/AP)

The NFL may be America’s most popular public spectacle, but it conducts business privately. The conversations between league officials remain confidential, their unvarnished thoughts hidden from view. Emails that surfaced this week rocked the league and provided a rare glimpse underneath the veneer.

Years-old emails from a prominent coach to a high-ranking team executive included racist, homophobic and misogynistic language. Once exposed, the offensive language used by Jon Gruden in correspondence with then-Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen led to Gruden’s resignation as the Las Vegas Raiders’ coach.

But were Gruden’s comments an outlier or an indication of the league’s executive culture? It may have been jarring to see Gruden call Commissioner Roger Goodell a homophobic slur, compare NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith’s lips to tires or rail against female referees in emails to Allen. To many within and connected to the league, it confirmed suspicions.

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“I’m not surprised by it,” said former NFL cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who once served as the president of the NFL Players Association. “Maybe I’m a little cynical or pessimistic. I think lots of things and events that have happened in the country recently would suggest that I’m not. A large portion of our country has views that a lot of us — I was going to say most of us, but I’m not sure it’s most of us — would consider antiquated. The fact he was comfortable saying things like that and sending messages like that is unfortunate but not surprising.”

Brian Levy, an agent who represents numerous Black coaches, said his clients would not be startled by Gruden sending emails that contained offensive language to a team president.

“I hate to say it, but they’re already so beaten up from this system that has failed them at so many levels that this doesn’t shock them,” Levy said. “This isn’t like, ‘Oh, boy, now this?’ No. This is, ‘Yeah, that’s about right.’ That’s the issue.”

Former Raiders CEO Amy Trask, the first woman hired to that position in the NFL, echoed the sentiment that Gruden’s emails reinforced deep-rooted problems not only within the league but American society at large. They also raised the question of whether Gruden’s views were apart from NFL culture or emblematic of it.

“Maybe neither,” said Trask, now a CBS Sports analyst. “Do I think the views expressed in that email were unique to one person? Well, that would be silly of me and naive of me to suggest that. Do I think the majority of people in the National Football League hold those views? No, I do not. I don’t think it’s an outlier, nor do I think it’s indicative of the majority.”

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Gruden wrote his emails to Allen during a period when he was working as ESPN’s lead analyst for “Monday Night Football,” not as a coach in the league. But the attitudes displayed in correspondence by a foremost face of the league with a key team decision-maker both carried and reflected real-world consequences.

In an email, Gruden derided Goodell for forcing the St. Louis Rams to draft “queers,” a reference to defensive end Michael Sam, who came out as gay before the draft. (Then-Rams coach Jeff Fisher said on Twitter that the league never pressured him to take any player.) It took another seven years until Carl Nassib, a Raiders defensive end who played for Gruden, became the first openly gay active NFL player. Nassib took a personal day off from practice Wednesday because he had “a lot to process,” Raiders General Manager Mike Mayock said.

Gruden’s emails added another stain to a league that has drawn criticism for other issues related to race, from its handling of protests sparked by Colin Kaepernick to its dismal record on hiring minority coaches.

“Those emails were exchanged between a person who was a head coach and has since become a head coach again and a team president,” Trask said. “That does raise the issue of hiring. This is not just the NFL, and I want to make that point as emphatically as I can. But if someone is going to express horrific views of that nature, how can one have confidence they’re going to hire without those horrific views in mind?”

In a league that is roughly 70 percent Black, five head coaches are minorities, just three of them Black, despite efforts by the league offices to increase diversity among its head coaching ranks. That Allen, an executive with sway in hirings and firings, received Gruden’s offensive emails struck some as especially troubling.

“You’d hope to say it’s an isolated incident, but the thought that it could not be is frightening,” Levy said. “I think it’s pervasive in an industry where time after time, Black head coaches are passed over, maybe because they don’t have people to send dark, private emails with to get through this process.”

“I’m more concerned about the conversations that are had, the private conversations that go on between these guys,” Levy added. “The Gruden stuff we know. It’s out in the open. What about the people we’ll never know? The league is known for having an old boys’ network. That’s not anything that’s shocking to anybody.”

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No NFL team signed Kaepernick after he knelt during the national anthem in protest of police brutality, and the NFL settled with him and safety Eric Reid after they sued the NFL for collusion. In emails submitted in Arizona court filings, Allen engages in several exchanges with far-right commentator Mark Levin, often thanking him or offering talking points related to protests and the NFL’s policies.

“You are passionately correct (again),” Allen wrote in one email. “However, remember 90%+ of NFL players have not considered kneeling. The 10% of players and owners are the issue.” Allen then pointed to Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York as problematic among owners.

In an interview with USA Today, Smith was asked whether he had concerns that the players he represented were being led by people who thought like Gruden. Smith replied that he already had shared those concerns with players in team meetings.

“I don’t really spare the fact that owners and this league [have] a history of treating players as fungible commodities,” Smith said. “All of that is rooted in a concept that they are somehow less valuable than other people.”

Along with the racism, homophobia and misogyny in Gruden’s emails, Foxworth detected broad disdain for players. He noted Gruden’s profane screeds against rule changes intended to limit concussions or keep concussed players sidelined.

“He wants to fight against things that protect players,” Foxworth said. “There’s a general disregard for labor. Those are things I know exist in America. When I was a player, I suspected they existed. I think part of it is just existing and representing a marginalized class, you learn to move in these spaces where these things exist. I don’t want to let anybody off the hook. But it’s not surprising to me.

“We’ve been in those CBA negotiations, and we know what they think about us. We know how they treat us, how they feel about us. It’s not just the Black players they don’t think very highly of. But it’s a fact of life that [players are] disproportionately Black.”

The emails surfaced at a moment when the NFL’s league office has championed progressive causes and embraced underrepresented groups. In June, in celebration of Pride Month, the NFL released a commercial proclaiming, “Football Is Gay.” The NFL and several prominent league figures — including Gruden — celebrated Nassib when he came out as the league’s first active gay player. Last year, in response to pressure from players after the death of George Floyd, Goodell apologized for not listening to players in the wake of Kaepernick’s protest and said, “Black lives matter.” Female assistant coaches have become routine.

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Gruden’s emails may have set that progress back, if not exposed it as superficial steps made while regressive attitudes permeate behind the scenes. It also could be a hinge in eradicating toxic views from the league.

“I hope the impact is that there’s a realization this problem has got to be fixed,” Trask said. “My hope is that this moment is going to be an important moment and a moment we don’t let pass. We as a society as a whole move on from one topic to the next so quickly. We should not move on quickly from this. We need to move on quickly to make ourselves better.”

Some high-profile players expressed confidence Gruden’s views were outdated and incompatible with an evolving NFL.

“I know that there’s probably opinions similar to [Gruden’s], but I feel like they’re few and far between,” Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the reigning MVP, said this week on “The Pat McAfee Show.” “I feel like the player and the coach of today is a more empathetic, advanced, progressive, loving, connected type of person.”

Gruden’s messages, sent to a high-profile decision-maker, provided a reminder of attitudes ingrained at every level of society. Many people within the league are trying to leave them behind. The revelations of this week made clear they’re still here.

“Maybe this isn’t the NFL of the future. But it certainly feels like it’s the NFL of the present,” Foxworth said. “It seems like there are people pushing to change that in the NFL. You can’t just hit a switch and turn over all the executives and coaches and employees. You just don’t hit a switch and change that sort of thinking. It’s a gradual process. Maybe they’re moving in the right direction. Maybe they aren’t. Honestly, I don’t know.”

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