Culture, Not “Cancel Culture”

Jon Gruden, from NBC Sports/Youtube

On Monday, Oct. 11, Jon Gruden resigned as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders as a result of bigoted emails sent to buddy Bruce Allen who was then president of the Washington “Redskins.” I’ve always had a soft spot for the Raiders and especially loved Jack Tatum, Willie Brown, Kenny Stabler, and the roughhousing, tough talking, big play image from the early 1970’s. As a high school defensive back and linebacker, I especially loved “clotheslining” and the way an end or running backs head snapped back when the hit stopped their forward momentum.

But in 1978, Daryl Stingley of the New England Patriots was permanently paralyzed by Tatum and I began to realize that it was all wrong. In fact, I was living in Oakland at the time, working in a restaurant on Alameda Island, and living on the corner of 10th and 23rd. It was a momentous time with the Jim Jones massacre and George Moscone/Harvey Milk murders but the part of me that still loved Jack Tatum was shadowed by a shame that’s still with me.

I always assumed the Raider organization hired Jon Gruden to bring back the swaggering brio of the 70’s Raiders. And Gruden’s emails were “old school” racial stereotyping of DeMaurice Smith, head of NFL Players Association, who Gruden referred to as having “lips the size of Michellin tires.” These kinds of images have deep roots in the history of white culture, emerging into popular culture with the blackface minstrelsy of the late 1830’s and 1840’s. It’s easy to think of images of black people with super-sized lips and noses, chimp-like teeth, furry arms and legs, and hyper-extended feet and heels as just being “mean” or “demeaning.” But the imagery used by Gruden served to identify black people as a not really human form of “comic substance” and to justify any form of discrimination, sadism, or violence as entertainment for white people. What Gruden was doing in his email was sharing a demeaning image of a black man for Allen’s entertainment while not only justifying a refusal to take DeMaurice Smith seriously but an urge to grind him into the dust.

While Gruden’s racism has a history, it was also closely aligned with Gruden’s homophobia (in relation to Michael Sam), exploitative sexism (topless cheerleader photos), and misogyny (put downs of NFL Commissioner). In many ways, Gruden was living the mainstream of post-segregation white conservative culture. He was more than willing to work with black athletes and was perhaps even willing to share locker room camaraderie with them. Likewise, Gruden probably had no particular problem with black Americans voting, serving on juries, or running for office in cities like Oakland but he also reserved the right to use racist language with his white friends and perhaps enjoyed racist jokes as much as any other “regular guy.” By the time, Gruden began his career in the late 1980’s, this was an “old school” post-segregationist kind of white racism–being able to engage with black people at work but insisting on being able to make racist jokes, comments, and observations with other white guys. It was part of white and male bonding and stood in stark contrast to the kind of liberal wimps who “cried racist” or would care about brain damage from playing football. Being that kind of old school old school also meant adamant opposition to Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid, and black protests against police violence. Like many white conservatives, Gruden saw his racial stereotyping and racial politics as color-blind instead of “racial.”

But Jon Gruden learned last week that being old school on race, gender, and sexual orientation is now taboo. The NFL central office, the NFL Players Association, and the most influential players in a league that’s 70% black, are committed to an official civil rights ideology of diversity, inclusion, and valuing black people, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, women, LGBT people and other groups protected under civil rights law and custom. and other racial minorities. The same official ideology is held by black publics, liberal/left whites, corporate sponsors, and the mainstream news media. That current version of civil rights ideology is elaborated in opposition both to legal segregation like that of the “Jim Crow South” AND the “old school” stereotyping, joking, stereotyping and informal discrimination of the Jon Grudens and Bruce Allens. The prevalence of old school thinking among owners, executives, and white fans makes the NFL a racist organization and would make any systematic enforcement of the official ideology a monumental task. However, the advocates of civil rights ideology have clear ideas about the moral turpitude of Gruden’s old school bigotry, don’t believe that old racists, misogynists, and homophobes have a place in the NFL, and acted quickly and skillfully to remove Gruden once the full range of his bigotry became a matter of public record. The quickness with which Gruden was either forced or induced to resign is a strong measure of both the moral consensus around civil rights ideology and the sophistication and eagerness of several parties to act on that moral consensus. Jon Gruden had been working in the NFL and football for almost 20 years, but he was gone in a day with the added taboo of never being able to work in professional football again.

Jon Gruden was expelled from the NFL through the workings of the official culture of the National Football League and its stakeholders. That’s not “cancel culture” as conservatives would have it. That’s just culture.

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