ESPN, Jock Culture, and Jon Gruden

Is the Worldwide Leader responsible oblivious to bigotry?

San Francisco Gate columnist Drew Magary makes a bold claim: “ESPN didn’t care and doesn’t care about now-former Raiders coach Jon Gruden’s bigotry.” While his style is sometimes sophomoric, McGary is usually rather insightful so I read on.

Gruden was the color guy for “Monday Night Football” when he sent all of those emails. He sent many of them FROM his ESPN work address. He was ESPN’s highest paid on-air talent. His boothmate at ESPN, Mike Tirico, was himself no stranger to wanton lechery and mounted a hollow “well I never saw him be racist” defense of Gruden on Sunday night that looks even more hollow right now. And what has been ESPN’s reaction to this news? See for yourself.

“The comments are clearly repugnant under any circumstance.”

That’s it. That weakass statement represents the entirety of ESPN’s due diligence on Gruden, without a second thought, reducing DeMaurice Smith to a racial caricature, accusing Roger Goodell of forcing the Rams to draft “queers” like Michael Sam, calling Joe Biden a “pussy,” dumping on female refs and trading topless photos of WFT cheerleaders with the dude who ran that team. 

That’s . . . rather underwhelming as a start.

Yes, Gruden wrote said emails while at ESPN and sent many from his espn.com email. So? While we all understand that our employers have every right to monitor our work accounts, most of us would be outraged if they were going through our emails absent some specific reason to do so. Did Gruden give the network reason to think he was a bigot while he was there?

So here’s another series of taut, sturdy lines to draw. Let’s draw one from Gruden to ESPN suspending Jemele Hill for suggesting a boycott of Jerry Jones’ businesses after his hug-the-flag routine. Let’s draw one from Gruden to Rachel Nichols, who got caught on tape disparaging her colleague Maria Taylor and openly griping about both #MeToo and Black Lives Matter to one of LeBron James’ advisers. ESPN “punished” Nichols by letting Taylor walk to NBC and pulling Nichols off the air while still letting her cash a fat paycheck.
 
More lines. Let’s draw one from Gruden to Sage Steele, who just this month openly mused that Barack Obama isn’t Black, along with making other deranged statements to Jay Cutler (??), and hasn’t been formally, publicly sanctioned for it. Let’s draw one from Gruden to Stephen A. Smith, who took Gruden’s place as the highest paid on-air talent at the four-letter despite having an appalling history of his own when it comes to issuing takes on both gay people and women.

This, again, is some rather thin gruel.

That ESPN has a conflict of interest because it simultaneously covers sports from a journalistic standpoint and yet is in business with various sports leagues is undeniable. But, first and foremost, it’s a business enterprise.

So, yes, it routinely suspends on-air talent for comments that might offend their business partners and/or alienate their viewers. That Hill, who is Black and commenting on racial justice issues, was among them is true. But the likes of Tony Kornheiser, Dan LeBatard, Bill Simmons, and other stars have also been suspended.

Steele, who is also Black, made some really weird comments recently about Barack Obama, who was President two Presidents ago, and railed against vaccine mandates. She was suspended. But what does that have to do with Gruden? And, even if the comparison is with Hill, it’s largely unfair in that the environment has simply changed in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests. ESPN and other outlets have begrudgingly realized that “stick to sports,” while perhaps ideal from an audience standpoint, is simply untenable. There’s simply no way to comment on sports in America without a discussion of race; they’re inextricably linked.

The linked comments from Smith, who is also Black, don’t strike me as particularly outrageous. They’re certainly far short of what Gruden put in writing in multiple emails.

And Magary’s summary of the Nichols situation is just grossly unfair. The network essentially replaced her on a program that was part of her contract and on which she was performing well with a much younger Black woman. She complained, in what she had every reason to believe was a private conversation, “If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”

Once the tape leaked, she was rendered persona non grata at the network, her show was canceled, and she won’t appear on their air again. But, not having committed a firable offense, the network is paying out her contract. Taylor, for her part, seemingly wanted the network to do more about it. In the end, Taylor jumped ship for a multimillion-dollar deal elsewhere and Nichols will likely never work in sports media again. What that has to do with Gruden is beyond me.

And finally, let’s draw one from Gruden to Adam Schefter, ESPN’s top NFL hobnobber and someone who can NEVER, under any circumstances, say anything like a normal person would.

Schefter could have broken this story before the New York Times did. He knew all of the principles. He almost certainly had access to Gruden’s emails, if not thousands of others that Snyder got the NFL to seal in a vault beneath the ocean floor. But he didn’t. In fact, Schefter’s connections to the league are entirely dependent on what he chooses to suppress, not what he chooses to report. He didn’t even break news of Gruden’s resignation (the NFL’s own Tom Pelissero did), which would have been well within his deliberately limited purview. He half-assed this story from beginning to end out of strategic negligence, and ESPN was more than happy to let him do so.

So, I honestly don’t know whether Schefter had the goods to break the story ahead of the NYT. But it’s plausible, indeed, that he chose not to report on leaked emails in order to maintain access. And, here is where McGary has a point—if a point that I’ve already made.

This has been a pattern at ESPN for a good long time now. Nothing all that bad happens to a lot of their worst talent, because the people who employ that on-air talent enjoy similar, shall we say, ethical vices. Current network president Jimmy Pitaro is a man who’s gutted the production side of the operation while also infamously enforcing an internal policy prohibiting ESPN stars from venturing too far afield when commenting on issues outside of sports. But really, Pitaro’s ascent is symptomatic of the network’s perpetual coziness with the leagues they cover, the NFL in particular.
 
I tend to think of that coziness manifesting itself in corporate ways. But the Gruden scandal proves the coziness is so much more personal than that. The network hires ex-NFL guys all the time (they hired Gruden for “MNF” to be, in essence, the next John Madden; he failed at that, too), so it makes sense that those NFL guys would bring the same jocular bigotry with them to the network. As a former football player, I know that jocular bigotry all too well, and I know the kind of perverse allure it has for people who want into the club. It makes sense that network execs would not only tolerate this kind of bro culture but ingratiate themselves with it. It makes sense that the rank and file at ESPN would have little choice but to accept the existence of this old boy network power structure as the cost of working there. And it makes sense that Gruden would have no hesitation whatsoever using an anti-gay slur to describe Roger Goodell to a then-active president of an NFL team, all via company email.
 
All of it makes sense. And the worst part is that it will CONTINUE to make sense, because this is how ESPN — and by association, Disney — thinks its business is best run. Instead of doggedly investigating and criticizing the worst aspects of football culture, they simply adopted them instead. They don’t cover the NFL. They ARE the NFL. That’s how they like it.
 
This sucks, because I know ESPN has resources on hand to do a proper job with Gruden and the rest of his brethren. They have Mina Kimes. They have Bomani Jones. They have Seth Wickersham. They have Pablo Torre. They have a reporting budget. They could be a vital check on the NFL instead of its most reliable henchman. Oh, but what fun would that be for Pitaro and his ilk? Wouldn’t it be a great time, not to mention easier, to let their most prominent stars and their most prominent partners indulge their worst instincts, and then go “oh dear, I guess that’s bad” whenever people take notice? Wouldn’t doing anything more spoil the party for everyone else? Those are the questions that ESPN likes to ask itself. God forbid they ask anything more.

This, again, is the conflict of interest at work. Whereas the New York Times is in the business of breaking news and doing investigative reporting, ESPN is in multiple businesses surrounding the business of sports.

ESPN is, first and foremost, a broadcast partner of various sports leagues. In football alone, they have the rights to show key NFL games, including the premier Sunday Night Ticket package and alternating Super Bowls, as well as the premium packages for most of the college games. Not only that, but they partner with the leagues and teams for such things as the SEC Network, Big Ten Network, and Longhorn Network. It’s the most lucrative package in all of sports and they don’t want to jeopardize it.

At the same time, they do news both on-air and on ESPN.com. (They used to produce a weekly magazine called, appropriately enough, ESPN The Magazine, but it went out of business a few years back). It’s mostly commentary by the likes of Smith, Torre, Jones, and others. But there’s also plenty of actual news reporting.

Is this incestuous? Yes.

Does it mean that they don’t care about racism, sexism, and homophobia? I don’t think so.

Do they hire a bunch of ex-jocks? Yeah. Does that bring jock culture to their air? Yeah. Is that what the fans want? Apparently.

Do their superstars have more margin for error? Well, sure.

FILED UNDER: Entertainment, Media, Sports
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Everyone cares about racism, sexism, and homophobia–when it happens to them or someone they care about. Otherwise? Meh… not so much.

    4
  2. Beth says:

    I think you mean Drew Magary. I highly doubt you’d like his writing for Defector if I
    This piece was sophomoric. [Yes. Fixed. -jhj]

    2
  3. KM says:

    Yes, Gruden wrote said emails while at ESPN and sent many from his espn.com email. So? While we all understand that our employers have every right to monitor our work accounts, most of us would be outraged if they were going through our emails absent some specific reason to do so. Did Gruden give the network reason to think he was a bigot while he was there?

    You mean….. other then the people he was sending them to knowing he was acting like that openly? Emails aren’t secure private diary entries – they were being sent to someone else frequently and those folks now have reason to inform the network of his behavior. These weren’t personal thoughts being kept segregated for his own musings but put out into the corporate ecosystem on purpose for others to read. The point of an email is to read it, @James so his words were intended to be read by the receiver and thus make them aware of his infraction. He blatantly broke HR rules on multiple occasions and sent the self-incriminating evidence to several people freely – the better question is why he wasn’t reported a long time ago.

    If a criminal emails details of his crime to his coworkers and it comes out (possibly due to coworker ratting him out), does he have the right to whine about unsolicited checking of his emails “for no reason” when he knew they looked for that kind of thing? Is this like robbers posting on FB during the heist and then getting bitchy the evidence is used against them?

    Do they hire a bunch of ex-jocks? Yeah. Does that bring jock culture to their air? Yeah. Is that what the fans want? Apparently.

    Do us a favor. Change the word “jock” for “racist” and see how well that argument fairs. How about “rapist” or “Nazi”? Our nation is currently suffering from a plague and post-insurrection denial specifically because FOX followed this same “logic”. It’s also how we got TFG so we shouldn’t complain he brought asshole culture to the WH since that’s what his fans wanted??

    My god, the length people will go to defend “locker room talk.” It’s not OK and hasn’t been for a while now. He wasn’t doing this back in the wayback but recently when he really should have known better. Racists and bigots don’t get a pass for this but “jock” should? Furthermore, not everyone who likes sports is a “jock” or embraces that crap culture. It’s not what the overall fans wanted but rather a vocal subset that might be pleased with it. The parallels to our current political climate are remarkable – a bad actor indulging in a niche subculture’s bad behavior openly at his job gets in trouble for it and the justification is “well that’s what they want, screw the greater society’s concern or rules.”

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  4. JohnMcC says:

    @KM: Was going to make some remark on this thread that there is no necessary connection between sports and athletics and being an asshole. If ESPN business plan involves assholes that also has no necessary connection to sports.

    There is a catagory error going on. Probably not Dr J’s. Prob’ly ESPN’s.

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @KM:

    You mean….. other then the people he was sending them to knowing he was acting like that openly?

    All I have to go on is the NYT report I cited yesterday in blogging the story. In that account, the emails were all external to ESPN—mostly to then-Redskins GM Bruce Allen but also to various business types.

    Do us a favor. Change the word “jock” for “racist” and see how well that argument fairs.

    I don’t watch much non-game coverage on ESPN these days but, as best I can tell, the ex-jocks they hire to cover football are ex-quarterbacks, ex-coaches, and ex-players known for the gift of gab when they were playing. Most of the former are white and most of the latter are Black. I don’t think racism is a particularly strong part of that culture; like the military, it’s meritocratic and is almost certainly less racist than the general public at any given point in time. Like the military, though, it’s male-dominated and inbued with a toxic masculinity that’s changing slower than the society writ large.

    @JohnMcC:

    If ESPN business plan involves assholes that also has no necessary connection to sports.

    I think ESPN depends on big personalities, most of whom have big egos and, therefore, a tendency to assholery. Most of the ex-jock on-air talent actually strike me as very personable. It’s the guys like Stephen A. (and former ESPNers Colin Cowherd and Skip Bayless) who are most flamboyantly jerkish in their demeanor, although I think it’s mostly for show/entertainment rather than genuine assholery.

    3
  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    When I was 11 or 12 my parents signed me up for PeeWee Football. Had the outfit – I think they call it a uniform – and the hat – which some people call a helmet. This was mid 1960’s but I was fashion-forward and presaged the 1980’s and the obsession with big shoulder pads with uncanny precision.

    This was in the panhandle of Florida and our practices and games came at dusk, which suited the mosquitos just fine. I played one game. Literally no idea which direction to run, and did not GAF.

    I’m actually grateful for the miserable experience because it saved me from the fate of so many little intellectual types who spend their lives pining for the jockdom that was never to be. See: George Will. See: every Hollywood writer needing to ‘humanize’ an intellectual character. I was clear in my head from that moment on: I didn’t like jocks and did not want to be one. Jocks were (are) boorish and generally rather stupid, and under the influence of as a little as a single light beer they begin emitting loud braying noises, BWAH HAH HAH and HOOH HOOOH HOOH sounds. Also, they’re terrified of homosexuals while nevertheless engaging in open physical displays of affection/attraction with other men that would embarrass a South Beach party boi.

    The ball is being thrown! The ball is being kicked! The ball was hit with a stick! Oh no, the ball was dropped! Let’s go to slo-mo so we can watch the ball even more closely. What will the ball do next? Will it go through the uprights/basket/goal? My God, how will I stand the suspense of waiting to see what guys I don’t know and who don’t know me do with the ball? Climate change? No time, must focus 90% of my energy on the ball! At any moment it could move! My cat has the same exact relationship with a laser pointer.

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  7. KM says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think ESPN depends on big personalities, most of whom have big egos and, therefore, a tendency to assholery.

    Fair enough but there are different types of assholery. There’s “I’m the GOAT 4eva”, “I was good at this so I’m naturally good at everything”, etc. Having a big ego and a loud mouth does not necessarily translate to being a bigot and recruiting big egos doesn’t mean having to put up with this crap. As you say, it’s inbued with a toxic masculinity that’s changing slower than the society writ large but when change does come, we shouldn’t be nitpicking it with “but but his emails”. He’s wrong, he got caught and like anybody else in any other profession that did this, he’s gone. Weaksauce explanations of why it only happened now instead of ages ago only give support to the culture that protected him for so long.

    I can promise you someone who feels this comfortable writing down that kind of language was displaying other red flags IRL. The kind of blatant entitlement and comfort in “nobody’s gonna say nuthin'” means he knew all his flags were being ignored – he felt safe and powerful enough to just straight up say terrible things in a savable document that can be easily retrieved, monitored and shared to the world. That kind of existential surety lends to other behaviors that mean his assholery wouldn’t be confined to the written word.

    If he’d been anyone else, this would have been the routine expected end to the story. Wow, you did what with the company email? You said what with our name attached? Fired. Jock culture as defense wouldn’t have come into it – it would have been a simple case of you violating a ton of corporate policies so bye-bye. Everyone that’s getting upset over this is missing the greater point of this being the normal outcome so why the outrage? Why get defensive over this other then tribal loyalties and excuses for bad behavior in a familiar subculture; in other words, if someone like Gruden could get canned for this, what does that mean for *me*?

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  8. Gavin says:

    James, “jock culture” is not a thing.

    If words are combined into a sentence that conveys a meaning of racism.. That person is racist, and deserves punishment.
    Same for sexism.

    Repeat ad infinitum. The tolerance is zero.

    Stop making excuses for bad behavior. I don’t give one rusted fork if the “jock” in question has never been called out before in their life.. ignorance is no excuse. If they aren’t willing to comply, they deserve to get fired and nobody will lose one second of sleep. At the moment they join a news organization, any/all “cred” they had as an athlete is gone and they need to prove their worth as an analyst.

    As an Ohio State fan, I’m happy Joshua Perry [Big Ten Network’s studio postgame] is good at his job. But he earned all of 60 seconds “for free” due to his athletic history! If he was a jock… I would not pay attention because you can’t be a jock if you’re actually competent at anything in life.

    As Keyshawn Johnson pointed out recently.. Jon Gruden was not a good leader from the beginning. You know, a jock.

    5
  9. Gustopher says:

    While we all understand that our employers have every right to monitor our work accounts, most of us would be outraged if they were going through our emails absent some specific reason to do so.

    I expect my work email is at the very least scanned for certain words and phrases, and crosses the desk of a human being if they appear. Various slurs, anticompetitive language that lawyers think looks bad in discovery, etc.

    3
  10. Scott says:

    most of us would be outraged if they were going through our emails absent some specific reason to do so.

    James, I work for the same DoD that do. There’s a little sticker that says “this equipment is subject to monitoring”. No, all should expect that there is no privacy WRT employer’s ability and right to monitor their own systems, especially with all the cyber warfare out there.

    @Michael Reynolds: I wouldn’t take your 60s experiences and extrapolate too far. My kids were jocks in high school and no, they were not subsumed into “jock culture”. Now, if you were referring to the pampered elite athletes (a very small percent) that believe they are entitled, then there is more truth to that.

    Coincidentally, just was catching up on Friday Night Lights. The first season, which was filmed in 2006, dealt with the same issues of race and jock culture that are discussed today. Funny, I couldn’t watch it when it first came out because my oldest was playing HS football and I couldn’t relate to the young college age actors playing high schoolers. The age disconnect was too large.

    1
  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Scott:
    I do gather that things have improved in some places. But only in some. The biggest change is the growth of nerd power. In the 60’s there was no opposition to the jocks, they ruled schools like La Eme rules Folsom. Now the balance of power has shifted , but alas, too late for me and any hopes that I would be in the NFL.

  12. Raoul says:

    I think you did well parsing each story. It is a big corporation with a lot of exposure and each situation is just different. But being in the public spotlight, everything gets aired out. ESPN business model is indeed in conflict but they should erred on the side of objectiveness and so far they haven’t but that’s really how modern media works, the political media is in a similar situation: like someone once said, will reporters criticize those who butter their toast, and is their understanding the job is not understanding their job? As to Gruden: good riddance to bad rubbish.

  13. Chris says:

    Gruden is just a coach and apparently a person who needs some serious remediation to rejoin humanity. But what about Bruce Allen, a high profile NFL executive at the time. What does Allen’s response or lack thereof to Gruden’s emails say about him?

  14. Dude Kembro says:

    @James Joyner:

    I don’t think racism is a particularly strong part of that culture; like the military, it’s meritocratic and is almost certainly less racist than the general public at any given point in time.

    Mmm…maybe?

    More than third of military members report having observed active white supremacist / neo-Nazi activity in the armed forces. Not surprising given the military is more right wing than civilian society — or was pre-Trump. I doubt a third of the general public has observed literal white supremacist extremism among peers — unless there’s something our white friends are not telling us. Spill the beans, y’all lol

    As to pro football, have we memory-holed what happened to Colin Kapernick? I don’t think NFL jock culture is necessarily more problemmatic than general American society, but probably not much less. Because NFL culture isn’t just the disproportionate number black athletes, but owners and coaches and an army of team, media, and businesses personnel who are non-black. Are they really more immune to prejudice than the rest of us?

    I’m not so sure (see Gruden, John; the concussion race-norming scandal, and all those NFL MAGA-endorsements). And I’m also not sure that the difference in treatment between Michael Sam and Carl Nassib is *just* a difference of 7 years. Toxic masculinity intersects with homophobia intersects with racism.

    NBA and basketball culture is a different animal, as far as race and racism. Football is suspect.

    2
  15. Dude Kembro says:

    While we all understand that our employers have every right to monitor our work accounts, most of us would be outraged if they were going through our emails absent some specific reason to do so

    If any of us got caught sending from our work emails to a major partner organization multiple emails with profane slurs, including calling the leader of said organization a “f—-t,” none of us would expect any controversy about our inevitable termination. Our resignation would be a foregone conclusion.

    Most of us would be fired if we got caught sending such emails from our

    personal

    accounts. And protests of “But such-and-such colleague did something else untoward and was disciplined differently” would be laughed at.

    Why is this hard? ESPN didn’t have to go through his emails, he pressed send. Like…?

    Do their superstars have more margin for error? Well, sure.

    If Stephen A. Smith is ever found to have sent to league executives from TinnitusCashcow@ESPN.com emails mocking Jeremy Lin’s eyes, bemoaning “queers” in reference to Carl Nassib, calling Adam Silver a “p—y” and Goodell a “f—–t,” his broadcasting career would be over. Superstar he may be, but in America 2021 nobody’s margin-of-error is that wide at their workplace. OANN and the Trump Organization excepted.

  16. Gustopher says:

    Is the Worldwide Leader responsible oblivious to bigotry?

    Isn’t it more likely that they know, and just don’t care? Boys will be boys, locker room talk, etc.

    1
  17. dazedandconfused says:

    The choice of photo was superb. The mentality captured.

    I have a hunch even the real clowns in pro wrestling have been more careful in private than Gruden. Their awareness they’re in show business is always on, and the attendant spotlight.

    1
  18. Pete S says:

    @Gustopher:
    There was a good book about ESPN called Those Guys Have All The Fun written a few years ago. If I remember right it seemed pretty well sourced and there is no reason to believe Jon Gruden would not have fit in.
    @Chris:
    The toxic culture in Washington around both the football and the human aspects of the WFT under Bruce Allen was spectacular. By the end the only head coach he could hire was Jon Gruden’s brother Jay, who had not been a head coach before or since. The current head coach hired after Allen was finally sent packing seems to have been brought in to clean up messes not just on the field

    1
  19. charon says:

    @KM:

    Clif Notes version:

    ESPN is to sports as FOX News Channel is to politics. Same business model.