How and why the Jon Gruden emails leaked: A timeline and theories
Jon Gruden resigned on Monday night from his position as head football coach of the Las Vegas Raiders following a meeting with team owner Mark Davis. The 58-year-old coach resigned after numerous offensive emails he sent from a personal email account from 2011-2018 were made public.
Gruden had six more years left on his $100 million contract at the time of his resignation. He has already been removed from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Ring of Honor.
We will examine the timeline of how this took place and possible theories explaining the leaks that made his private emails public.
What made Jon Gruden so famous and well known?
Gruden was a very young coach in the NFL at a time when many coaches were older. He developed a reputation for being a prodigy. He was only 35 during his first season as an NFL head coach. Gruden helped turn longtime backup quarterback Rich Gannon into a Pro Bowler and league MVP. He coached the Raiders from 1998-2001, was traded to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led them to a Super Bowl win over the Raiders in his first year at Tampa Bay, and then was fired by the Bucs in 2009.
At the time Gruden was fired by Tampa Bay, he had a well-known reputation for being an offensive-minded coach. He had a strong and quirky personality, and was full of energy. He went into broadcasting and became a major NFL presence on ESPN, commentating on “Monday Night Football” from 2009-2017, hosting a QB camp draft program, and participating in draft coverage. He was enough of a personality where comedian Frank Caliendo made part of his living by doing an impression of Gruden.
$100 million man
All the while he was with ESPN, Gruden was the subject of constant rumors about whether he would return to coaching. He denied those rumors and remained at ESPN through the years, despite being much younger than a typical retirement age. He rebuffed several efforts by the Raiders to bring him back. However, he finally relented and was lured away by Mark Davis to become the Raiders’ head coach ahead of their move to Las Vegas, thanks to a high-profile 10-year, $100 million deal.
A swift ending following leaked emails
Gruden was only in his fourth season on the job when he resigned Monday. Numerous emails he sent from 2011-2018 were leaked and reported about by two media outlets: The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
The contents of the emails led to his resignation, stained his reputation, and likely cost him a chance of ever coaching/working in the NFL ever again.
The First Leak: Email About DeMaurice Smith’s lips
The contents of the first leaked email were published in a story by The Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. Gruden originally sent the email in 2011, amid an NFL labor lockout, to Allen, a close friend and former coworker of Gruden. The email contained an insult from Gruden regarding the size of NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith’s lips.
“Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin (sic) tires,” Gruden wrote in a 2011 email to Allen, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.
Gruden intentionally misspelled Smith’s name as an insult.
Smith said in comments to the Journal that Gruden was making a racial remark about him and that this was an example of the racism and challenges he faces as a black executive.
In the same article, Gruden denied that the comment had anything to do with race. Instead, he said the comment was his way of calling Smith a liar, since he uses the term “rubber lips” to describe someone he thinks is double-talking or lying. One of Gruden’s former players, Tim Brown, even backed up that account.
The NFL and the Raiders admonished Gruden in a statement. The NFL made clear that it would be the Raiders’ responsibility to handle the situation. Gruden was allowed to coach his team for their next game, which turned out to be a 20-9 home loss to the Chicago Bears. The loss was a disappointing performance from the Raiders, who were possibly distracted by the Gruden matter, and played much worse than they had all season.
The Second Leak: A gay slur and much more
The second batch of leaked Gruden emails were published on Monday evening, Oct. 11, 2011, by The New York Times’ Ken Belson and Katherine Rosman.
In these emails, Gruden ran the gamut of offending people. According to the Times, Gruden used a gay slur, called out the NFL for “forcing” the Rams to draft a gay player (Michael Sam in 2014), and criticized NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Smith, and many others.
“In several instances, Gruden used a homophobic slur to refer to Goodell and offensive language to describe some N.F.L. owners, coaches and journalists who cover the league,” the Times reported.
How did the NFL got a hold of Jon Gruden’s emails?
Gruden traded numerous emails with his buddy, Allen. Allen was with the Raiders when Gruden was their head coach, and he was the GM of the Buccaneers when Gruden was Tampa Bay’s head coach. From 2010-2019, Allen served in high-level positions with Washington, beginning with an executive VP/GM title, to team president.
Though Gruden was sending emails from a personal email account, he was corresponding with Allen on Allen’s work email. That made the emails work/business emails for Allen, even if Allen treated his work email carelessly like he was on his personal email.
The emails Gruden exchanged with Allen came up during a legal investigation into Washington’s workplace.
Why was Washington being investigated, and by whom?
The Washington Football Team hired lawyer Beth Wilkinson in 2020 to investigate the team’s workplace and culture following several allegations of sexual harassment and verbal abuse.
In July 2020, The Washington Post published a story containing allegations from 15 women who were current or former Washington employees. The women shared accusations of sexual harassment they experienced while working for the team. Five former Washington employees, who as of the report’s publishing in 2020 were no longer with the team, were accused of sexual harassment and verbal abuse.
Also, in August 2020, The Post reported that Washington executives would watch a specially-created video of outtakes involving Washington cheerleader photoshoots.
Following these reports, Washington was pressured to act. Team owner Daniel Snyder then hired lawyer Wilkinson to conduct an investigation. The NFL later took over the investigation.
No written report of the investigation’s findings were ever made public.
“The league said Wilkinson interviewed more than 150 people, including current and former employees. (NFL special counsel for investigations Lisa) Friel said individual allegations were not made part of Wilkinson’s findings because of confidentiality agreements requested by many people and that there was no written report, only an oral presentation.”
The franchise was fined $10 million, they hired and/or promoted several minorities, and Daniel Snyder stepped aside from running day-to-day activities to allow his wife to take over. But the Snyders were allowed to maintain ownership of the team.
The NFL did not make findings of the Washington investigation public and no written report was produced. That left many to wonder how and why only the emails sent by Gruden leaked out.
Timing of the Leaks
There are two theories/explanations at play regarding the timing of the leaks.
Theory 1: Keep Smith in office
It just so happens that Smith was facing a vote for reelection to his position as Executive Director of the NFLPA on the same day the first story was published regarding the email leak. A story published by ESPN on Oct. 6 reported that the NFLPA’s executive committee was split 7-7 on keeping Smith. The article said that Smith’s job was in jeopardy.
Some have theorized that the email was leaked and the publishing of the story was strategically timed to aid Smith’s reelection efforts. The theories suggest that such an email leak could paint Smith as a victim and appeal to the players on the basis of race.
Whether or not the leak had anything to do with it, Smith was ultimately reelected by the NFLPA. Maybe someone with the NFL, who wanted Smith to remain in his position because Smith works well with the NFL, leaked the news, and Gruden was collateral damage. We don’t know.
Theory 2: When Goodell saw the emails
If you don’t subscribe to theory 1, then you might believe that the timing of the leaks had to do with when the emails were reportedly presented to Goodell. Both the Wall Street Journal and New York Times articles said that the NFL reviewed more than 650,000 emails at Goodell’s direction and presented a summary to the commissioner early last week.
From the Journal:
Over the past few months, the NFL said, senior NFL executives have reviewed more than 650,000 emails, including this one, at commissioner Roger Goodell ‘s direction. Earlier this week, the executives presented a summary of that review to Goodell. The league added that it is sharing emails pertaining to Gruden with the Raiders.
Given that timeline, one could argue that the email leaked to the Journal because it was fresh material Goodell had just received, and the Journal published a story on it a few days later.
Maybe the timing was coincidental regarding Smith, and the person who leaked the emails thought that the lips comment about Smith was the most problematic of the Gruden emails. Perhaps the leaker thought leaking that comment would be enough to get Gruden fired, while sparing Gruden from having more problematic emails leak.
When no discipline was taken against Gruden, perhaps the leaker leaked more to force the Raiders to act.
“Clearly there were people affiliated with the National Football League and in the National Football League offices who wanted action taken, and they felt it should have been taken long before Monday night,” Adam Schefter reported on ESPN Monday night.
Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio suggested the NFL leaked the first Gruden email.
Friday's leak was the first torpedo the NFL fired at Gruden. He tried to fix the damage instead of abandoning ship, even though he knew how many other torpedos were in the water.
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 12, 2021
Florio suggested that the NFL was going to continue to leak emails until Gruden lost his job.
There's some high level chess/checkers going on with Gruden. The league doesn't want to suspend him. The league wants the Raiders to fire him. The league likely will keep leaking more emails until the Raiders fire him.
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) October 12, 2021
It could be that enough people who reviewed the contents of the investigation were made aware of the Gruden emails and decided there was no way they could have those emails in their possession and let Gruden continue to operate in such a high-profile position within the league. Maybe the NFL learned their lesson from the Ray Rice video about what happens when a third party gets a hold of something that looks terrible, and the public finds out you did very little about it.
It could be that someone thought the first email would be enough to make Gruden go away and the second batch of emails never would have come out, but felt their hand was forced to leak more when Gruden explained his first email.
It could be that Gruden called Goodell a gay slur and reportedly repeatedly insulted the commissioner. Goodell, who has a gay brother and is defensive of him, could have taken the insults and name-calling personally and decided he wanted to oust Gruden.
It could be some combination of all the aforementioned factors at play.
Why was Gruden targeted but others seemingly have been spared?
Those who worked on the Wilkinson investigation, and those in the NFL who reviewed the Washington case, likely encountered plenty of problematic content beyond just the emails exchanged between Gruden and Allen. Snyder has been allowed to retain ownership of his team. No written report was ever produced.
So why was Gruden seemingly targeted, and so much later after the investigation, while seemingly no other damaging information has been released? Is it because everyone else has already been fired/is no longer part of the team? Is it because Gruden is the most high-profile person involved? The heat has now been turned up on the NFL to explain why everything else was sealed.
Gruden not a victim
Gruden’s case is one that raises many questions and concerns. People say things every day in private what they wouldn’t say in public. How many people have criticized their boss, ragged on a colleague, friend, family member or acquaintance privately? People recognize that there should be boundaries between public and private communications, and are concerned when someone faces severe consequences for things done in private.
However, there are two things to keep in mind.
1) The things Gruden said were terrible. He is responsible for the emails he wrote and created the situation by offending numerous people and groups in the first place. If he doesn’t say those things or use that language, then there wouldn’t be an issue.
2) He was stupid and careless about his insults and comments, sending them through Allen’s work email. You say those kinds of things in a work email, you subject yourself to consequences through the company/business. Though Gruden and Allen were acting like they were saying things in private, they were corresponding through work email, thus making the communications a work matter for Allen and Washington’s front office.
Photo: Sep 19, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden takes the field before the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports