Vahe Gregorian: Good on the Raiders for ousting Jon Gruden, but hard questions loom for the NFL

By Vahe Gregorian

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A year ago Monday, Jon Gruden's Raiders ended a seven-game losing streak at Arrowhead Stadium with a 40-32 victory over the Chiefs. The postgame celebration included the Raiders and Gruden asking their police escort to allow the team buses to take a victory lap around the stadium.

But the Chiefs resumed their recent dominance of the rivalry with a 35-31 win in Las Vegas six weeks later, days after an irked Andy Reid had taken a jab at his longtime friend by saying such taunting theatrics are "not our style."

As it happens, a year to the day after that episode, even the Raiders couldn't abide by the heedless style that is part of Gruden's makeup, illuminated now and forever forward in the form of the racist, homophobic and misogynistic emails that led to his abrupt resignation on Monday.

Good on the Raiders for forcing bold and decisive action ... on National Coming Out Day, no less.

But the fallout will hover and hard questions are ahead as the NFL is forced to confront the broader meaning of Gruden's repulsive sentiments — all the more appalling for the casual way he flung them around.

That includes learning more about who around the league enabled or even emboldened his behavior, either by chiming in or tacitly condoning it with silence.

More intangibly, it includes reassessing to what degree his way of thinking, even in more subtle forms, persists around the NFL and seeps into obvious ongoing issues such as the under-representation of Blacks in major roles, such as head coaching positions.

Witness, for instance, the case of Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who is believed to have been interviewed for a dozen head coaching jobs the last few years only to be passed over again and again. And Bieniemy's name is surfacing again now as a possible eventual replacement for Gruden while special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia takes over as interim head coach.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that Bieniemy is among the top candidates to replace Gruden and The Sporting News listed him as the top prospect.

The Raiders indeed would do well to strongly consider Bieniemy, but you have to wonder how strongly Bieniemy should consider the Raiders given the AFC West rivalry with the Chiefs and the cultural flux that will be in play in Las Vegas for the foreseeable future.

Then again, if given the opportunity after all the wrenching disappointments, it's hard to see why Bieniemy should pass it up and deny himself the chance at a position his resume screams that he's earned. In the process, he could also stand as a direct rebuttal to a man who used a vile racist image to describe NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith in 2011.

That might be especially appealing to an organization that was accused of making a mockery of the Rooney Rule requiring every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview one or more diverse candidates when it hired Gruden in 2018. The NFL ruling that the Raiders had complied was rejected by the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group promoting diversity within NFL front offices and coaching staffs.

That's a lot to sift through for even outside observers, let alone the man it directly concerns.

So here's hoping simply that Bieniemy gets the chance to have a decision to make about what we might perceive as a dilemma for him that, in fact, we have no way of knowing how he sees.

But that scenario is just a sliver of the bigger picture, and Smith put it well on Twitter on Monday:

"The email from Jon Gruden — and some of the reaction to it — confirms that the fight against racism, racist tropes and intolerance is not over. This is not about an email as much as it is about a pervasive belief by some that people who look like me can be treated as less."

Indeed, the implications are only beginning to unfold after the swift unseating of Gruden in the wake of The New York Times' report about those emails, which were unearthed among some 650,000 others through an NFL investigation of the culture of sexual harassment in the offices of the Washington Football Team.

But we know some things already: that a man who used hateful homophobic slurs to characterize commissioner Roger Goodell and former Mizzou defensive lineman Michael Sam in emails to then-Washington president Bruce Allen (when Gruden was working for ESPN between coaching stints) is out of a job with an organization that employs defensive end Carl Nassib, the first active NFL player in history to announce that he's gay.

That's a profound contrast, to be sure, and it perhaps says something reassuring about an organization led by Mark Davis, whose father, Al, was known for his mantra of "Just Win, Baby," and whose team was gaining traction under Gruden.

That Gruden was "forced to resign signals a powerful moment for the league," wrote co-founder Cyd Zeigler, further noting that the NFL has "produced various messages of support for the LGBTQ community."

He later added that this particular message about the state of the NFL in 2021 was unmistakable: "Gay athletes are welcome. Coaches who use gay slurs are not."

Tampa Bay, which Gruden led to a Super Bowl XXXVII triumph, made another statement about the current NFL when it announced on Tuesday that Gruden's name would be removed from its Ring of Honor. The Buccaneers organization cited its advocacy for "race relations, gender equality, diversity and inclusion."

Condemning Gruden's slurs is a start that some will reflexively call "cancel culture." But Gruden has canceled himself.

Put another way, it's a bit like that old quote of director Cecil B. DeMille from a commencement address at Reid's alma mater, Brigham Young:

"We cannot break the Ten Commandments. We can only break ourselves against them."

Now it's up to the NFL, in words, yes, but more importantly in deeds, to prove that Gruden's way is against its own principles.

It's a sad state of affairs that there's so much work yet to be done on all these fronts. But it's also a chance to reset with a more honest and transparent approach ... and a chance for all to refute his style.

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