Reviews | What Jon Gruden’s emails tell us about Cancel Culture
You can no longer be a safe jerk at work, not even in private.
This is what National Football League head coach Jon Gruden learned the hard way, after years of his emails filled with racist, sexist and homophobic remarks made their way into news reports this week. last. Among other things, the coach, who is white, wrote while an analyst at ESPN that a black union leader had lips like rubber tires. Other revelations suggested that Mr. Gruden was not the only one in the NFL leadership ranks to engage in occasional virulent racism, as other emails emerged showing a senior official joking about Native Americans. and making fun of diversity.
Yet when Mr. Gruden resigned, there was a backlash. On Twitter, conservative blogger and podcast host Matt Walsh complained that Mr. Gruden is “quashed for thought crimes”. Conservative radio host Charlie Kirk echoed the sentiment, saying the coach had to step down “because he is a white male, Catholic and Tory.” They speak for many Americans who feel that Mr. Gruden has become something of a scapegoat in a rush to clean up our speech. And indeed, who hasn’t said something less than kind among friends or colleagues?
But Mr. Gruden and these other powerful men are not victims of culture cancellation. On the contrary, throughout their careers they have been the beneficiaries of a different phenomenon, which permeates not only the NFL but also many other institutions dominated by heterosexual white males. Let’s call it OK Culture.
OK Culture is what allows the kind of noxious talk in Mr. Gruden’s emails to continue for years to come. Here’s how it works: Do you have sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic or demeaning thoughts? Are you smart enough to know that you shouldn’t say it in public but want to say it anyway? Are you a powerful and successful person? If so, just make your nasty remark or crude joke to a selected group who have similar opinions or at least wouldn’t dare to challenge yours. Do not worry. It’s OK!
Of course, when Mr. Gruden and others like him wrote or said some of the things that put their careers in jeopardy, they probably didn’t anticipate our world today. Communications no longer go away no matter how badly you wish they did.
But it is not an elegy for a man defeated by the evolution of manners or the new digital transparency. Instead, it is a warning to the institutions that nurtured this heinous behavior. They should change because it’s the right thing to do. But also, they have to change in order to survive.
Many have pointed out that Mr. Gruden is not an outlier in the NFL As defensive end Ryan Russell, who is black and came out in 2019 as a bisexual, wrote last week: “The culture is going over Far Than One Head Coach: Gruden’s emails are not just a fanatic’s hateful rant, but a written story of the vast mistreatment of marginalized voices throughout the NFL “
A common aspect of OK culture is the tendency to look the other way when someone is professionally excellent but personally awful. The speech in Mr Gruden’s correspondence veered into territory that was blatantly rude, including sharing photos of cheerleaders and other women wearing only bikini bottoms. Yet for years Mr. Gruden remained OK. In his arena, he was among the best. He ended up signing a 10-year contract worth $ 100 million when the Raiders hired him in 2018, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the league. The sycophants surrounding him helped him dig his own grave.
Poke fun at whatever you want during sensitivity trainings and warnings to determine if you’d like to see something published in the New York Times before you hit send. But it’s when these standards fail that the court of public opinion looms large.
Mr. Gruden is out. But the NFL can still work to save itself.
Curbing OK Culture is not a kind of “Kumbaya” altruism. It’s a survival strategy. A 2018 analysis of reports from the internal whistleblower hotline at U.S. state-owned companies showed that encouraging employees to speak up and listen to them when they do is crucial to tackling bad behavior and toxic culture, reported Harvard Business Review. When employees recognize that minor and major behaviors are unacceptable – and report them – companies face fewer lawsuits and pay less in settlements. (But research has shown that the taboos around talking to coworkers are strong; it’s estimated that just 1.4% of employees do.)
Instead of listening to whistleblowers, organizations are often tempted to listen to the siren song of their own success, which in some cases leads to real harm. The examples ricochet through the recent history of sport. In American gymnastics, Dr. Larry Nassar has been able to sexually abuse more than 150 of the nation’s most talented young female athletes for decades. At Nike, athletics coach Alberto Salazar enjoyed divine status as well as the support and funding of the clothing company, even after being accused of abusing athletes and suspended for doping misconduct. The National Women’s Football League is facing allegations that coaches have sexually and emotionally abused or harassed female players for years after officials failed to take reports of abuse seriously enough.
There are also many edifying accounts from outdoor sports: Officials at several hospitals have been accused of ignoring reports that famous doctor Ricardo Cruciani sexually assaulted patients. Then there is the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, Enron, Theranos, Hollywood. At some point in each of these slow-motion disasters, one person (or many) pushed the boundaries of what was ethical, decent, or legal – and learned that their behavior was OK. They stood up. It got worse.
I suspect that many who are still angry with Mr Gruden’s dismissal are not just excited on his behalf. They are horrified by his punishment because they fear him themselves. They may be able to remember or imagine themselves thinking and saying similar things in a private conversation. So they ignore Mr. Gruden’s offense with the well-worn excuse of banter in the locker room and shout “cancel the culture”.
But that doesn’t help. It’s time to stop arguing about whether these punishments are fair and start thinking more deeply about why the behavior they are punishing seemed okay in the first place. And if others who act like Mr. Gruden are afraid, maybe they should be. Most importantly, they should change.