LOS ANGELES — Every NFL fan knows in times of trouble there is a word the league turns to get itself out of a jam — "distraction." You can be a racist, skip child support payments, even be a woman beater … but Lord Sweet Jesus, don't be a distraction.
And as former Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden tells it, that's the reason he resigned: "I love the Raiders and do not want to be a distraction."
That statement came out Monday, a few hours after the New York Times reported on emails Gruden wrote that contained homophobic and misogynistic remarks. This after an earlier report of racist statements Gruden made about DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association. On Tuesday, Smith indicated the NFLPA will request that the league release the remaining 650,000 emails it reviewed as part of the workplace misconduct investigation on the Washington Football Team.
I wonder how many more "distractions" they'll find.
It's quite clever how the NFL uses that word as a Get Out of Jail Free card. Whenever the conversation veers away from Xs and O's someone yells "distraction," and we're reminded that nothing or no one is more important than the game. Not even the alleged victim.
Now football is a dangerous sport. A missed blocking assignment could lead to a loss of yards if you're lucky, the loss of lot more if you're not. And over the years the football audience has been conditioned to accept the premise that distractions are the worst things that can possibly happen to their favorite team.
Colin Kaepernick and criminal justice reform? A distraction.
"Each and every week, it seems like there is something we're talking about other than the game," former New York Giants head coach Ben McAdoo said in 2016 in response to allegations that his kicker, Josh Brown, beat his wife. "That's the whole league now."
Damn, that's good.
McAdoo not only managed to dismiss conversations about how the franchise was addressing domestic violence, but he also threw shade at players who were then taking a knee during the national anthem.
To be clear, Gruden was not a distraction for the Raiders.
He was the highly influential leader of a multibillion-dollar industry who suggested in his emails that it's a mistake to hire women and gay men to Bruce Allen, the former president of the Washington Football Team, with the authority to do both.
Gruden was the leader who exchanged emails with Allen that included a topless photo of one of Allen's female employees. He was the industry leader who claimed he "never had a blade of racism in me" while balking at proposals to rid Allen's team of its racist name.
No, Gruden is not a distraction from the game — he is the epitome of the game within the game.
This is the league that spoke loudly of God and country while quietly raking in millions of taxpayer dollars to fly the flag among other paid acts of patriotism
If someone within the higher ranks stumble — in this case, Gruden — just pull out the "distraction" card and hope for Sunday. If it's really bad, donate money and slap some decals on the helmets. Maybe make a strong statement about change, knowing full well that when the media attention dies down, nothing really has to change.
This is why Gruden and Allen never bothered to look over their shoulders as they were exchanging sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic and vulgar language about employees and colleagues via email. The way this game within the game is set up, they knew no one would hold them accountable. And for years, no one ever did.
Gruden's resignation isn't the end or the beginning, just another Rorschach test. Sadly, some will see the controversy as no big deal, while others will foolishly think this is some sort of turning point.
Me? I remember a 2013 video of a white player named Riley Cooper threatening to "fight every n— here" and the league gave that man a new contract.
Meanwhile, there were eight head coaching vacancies that same year and not one Black person was hired. For 2021, there were seven vacancies, and one Black coach hired.
Progress … I guess.
Or maybe it's an indication of a darker truth about the NFL — that far too often, the games are a distraction from the conversations we should be having.