NFL Coach Jon Gruden Is the Right’s New Favorite Cancel Culture Martyr

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Around the time that the Black Lives Matter protest movement was sweeping across the country, the National Football League began to take steps to align itself with the racial justice and LGBTQ+ communities. This past June, the league launched a new promo video that proclaimed, “Football is gay,” as well as “lesbian,” “beautiful,” “strong,” “queer,” and “transgender.” The video reportedly drew plenty of hateful comments, and this week, a new scandal has shed light on the recalcitrant culture of homophobia and racism that still exists in the NFL. On Monday, The New York Times reported that Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden made a series of racist, homophobic, and sexist comments in emails several years ago.

Gruden attempted to sweep aside the incident when confronted with the first seemingly racist remark he made in 2011, when he said that NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, who is Black, has “lips the size of [Michelin] tires.” But he ultimately resigned in the face of the Times story, which suggested the comment was not an isolated incident. “I love the Raiders and do not want to be a distraction,” Gruden said in a statement. “I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt anyone.”

The comments in question were uncovered amid the league’s investigation of workplace misconduct at the Washington Football Team. Gruden, who was an ESPN analyst at the time, emailed with former Football Team president Bruce Allen from ​​2011 to 2018. The Times reported that, in these exchanges and with others, Gruden referred to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as a “f–got” and a “clueless anti football pussy,” and wrote that Goodell should not have encouraged former Rams coach Jeff Fisher to draft “queers.” (Fisher and the Rams had offered a contract to Michael Sam, who came out as gay in 2014.) Gruden also bashed the NFL’s decision to hire women referees and condemned players who protested police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, according to the Times.

In perhaps a predictable turn of events, Gruden’s resignation has granted him instant martyr status in the right-wing media’s “cancel culture” wars. Blogger and podcast host Matt Walsh said as much in a tweet stating that “Nobody was a victim of Gruden’s vulgar comments,” ergo he should face no consequences. “Nobody was hurt or even offended. Call it what it is: Gruden is getting canceled for thought crimes,” Walsh wrote, adding that Gruden lost his job “because he’s a white guy who used insensitive language.” Gruden’s use of anti-gay slurs is of particular note given that––up until Monday night––he coached Carl Nassib, the first active NFL player to come out publicly. Still, Walsh wrote, there is “no indication or even claim that [Gruden] has acted inappropriately in his job as a coach.” 

Former first son Donald Trump Jr. likewise used Gruden’s resignation to condemn the “woke” sports media. “I would say we need the woke sports reporter texts and emails too,” he wrote. He also demanded to see “the emails & texts of Goodell & every NFL owner/exec. We must find out if they’ve ever said anything wrong, shared a controversial thought, or held an opinion that wasn’t PC. No statute of limitations.” Media figurehead Ben Shapiro mocked the backlash to Gruden’s remarks by suggesting that the NFL’s next move might be to force the Raiders to hire transgender coaches. “Always fun to watch Leftist corporate overlords throw out a propitiatory human sacrifice in order to distract from their own exploitative practices,” Shapiro tweeted. “Because let’s face it: in the pantheon of NFL-related sins, bad old emails are problem #1,094.” Stephen Miller, a right-wing blogger who happens to share a name with the Trump White House’s former anti-immigration czar, tweeted, “Congrats to the Raiders and whichever trans non-binary 2SLGBTQQIA coach they hire. Progress starts at home.”

Naturally, the controversy made its way onto the former president’s favorite TV network. During his Fox Business show on Monday, host Charles Payne argued that Gruden was a victim of selective punishment and that he “should [not] have lost his job over this,” while his guest asserted that proponents of “cancel culture” have “won another battle.” Jason Whitlock, a former Fox Sports personality who now hosts a show on Glenn Beck’s The Blaze network, responded to the controversy by suggesting that this season’s Super Bowl Halftime Show’s performers—rappers Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and Eminem—are all more cancel-worthy than Gruden. Newsmax host Greg Kelly chalked up Gruden’s resignation to “CANCEL CULTURE BULLSHIT,” while right-wing talk radio host Jesse Kelly said that if Gruden had “mocked straight people, insulted the looks of a white man, and said Christians are stupid, he’d still be employed today.”

A number of right-wing commentators vouched for Gruden’s innocence by highlighting the NFL’s history of sexual misconduct and domestic violence cases. “Deshaun Watson has been accused of sexually assaulting 24 different women. He is currently eligible to play in the NFL. Yet Jon Gruden was just forced to resign as a coach because of years old derogatory emails,” wrote conservative sports talk radio host Clay Travis, who did not mention that Watson hasn’t played a single snap since the allegations against him became public. (Not all of the accusations against Watson are for sexual assault; some concern sexual misconduct. The FBI is investigating the allegations against Watson, and also possible extortion, according to Watson’s lawyer. Watson has denied all accusations.) “This is representative of the social media world we’ve created,” Travis continued. “You’re better off being accused of actual violent crimes than sending inappropriate emails.”

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