The hateful, antiquated attitudes Jon Gruden expressed are why Carl Nassib's courage is so important

·6 min read

Carl Nassib came out last offseason via a brief social media video. It made him the first openly gay NFL player.

There were criticisms that this wasn’t important or something no one needed to know. There were accusations he was just seeking publicity. Some even accused him of using his announcement to ensure he wouldn’t be cut this year by the Las Vegas Raiders.

Nassib, however, has said little since that day. He’s just done his job, and done it pretty well.

Through five games he’s racked up seven solo tackles, two sacks and caused a memorable season-opening fumble by Lamar Jackson that helped the Raiders beat Baltimore. Pro Football Focus metrics rank him the 30th-best edge defender in the league this season.

So, no, this hasn’t been a publicity stunt or job security play.

It’s been far more important than that.

Consider that until Monday, Nassib’s head coach was Jon Gruden, who in emails uncovered during a tangential NFL investigation freely used anti-gay slurs and insults. He additionally took considerable umbrage when, in 2014, he felt the NFL was forcing the drafting of “queers” – in that case, University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam.

To Gruden, being gay was a negative, a pejorative, a shameful putdown. To Gruden, Michael Sam wasn’t a long-shot NFL prospect (the seventh round and training camp invites are filled with wild gambits). He wasn't a young guy trying to break through. Sam was nothing more than his sexuality.

Does he still think that? Did being confronted with Carl Nassib in the locker room change anything? Did coaching a dedicated team guy and reliable late game player alter Gruden’s view of homosexuals, at least a little?

Maybe. Hope so.

Maybe not though.

Gruden has been surrounded by and coached African Americans for years. Yet in 2011, when the NFL and the NFLPA were involved in tense labor negotiations, Gruden didn’t just criticize union head DeMaurice Smith, who is African American, for his performance, which would be fair and fine. Instead he sunk to a racist troupe about Smith’s lips — “the size of michelin tires (sic),” Gruden wrote.

Gruden didn’t see Smith as a man of accomplishment — graduate of the University of Virginia law school, a veteran of a white shoe firm in D.C., a former U.S. Attorney in the Department of Justice. He didn’t see him as a man at all, just some ancient and pathetic cartoon character.

Maybe he views African Americans only as athletes, pawns on his chess board, but not cutthroat lawyers or union negotiators.

“Racism like this comes from the fact that I’m at the same table as they are and they don’t think someone who looks like me belongs,” Smith said in a statement to the Wall Street Journal, which broke the email story.

Maybe Jon Gruden could have coached an openly gay player like Carl Nassib for five years instead of five weeks and changed his feelings. Maybe not. Either way, Nassib's courage is as important as ever. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Maybe Jon Gruden could have coached an openly gay player like Carl Nassib for five years instead of five weeks and changed his feelings. Maybe not. Either way, Nassib's courage is as important as ever. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Presumably Gruden knows and respects some women in his life. That didn’t stop him, however, from, according to The New York Times, denouncing “the emergence of women as referees.” Really? Reffing a football game is too difficult for a woman?

Wait until he finds out women are judges, governors, doctors, executives, scientists, soldiers, astronauts and … gasp … actual bosses in virtually every other walk of life.

That’s Gruden though. He claimed he didn’t have a racist bone in his body, but he had a bunch of racist email chains on his computer. He said, perhaps honestly, that “he never meant to hurt anybody,” but is clearly too clueless to even conceptualize what that might entail. He’s a character straight out of the anonymous comments section.

In the end he got canceled for it – fired from his job.

Gruden is probably fine with that. After all, he was a proponent of losing employment due to the expression of personal opinion when he wrote that former player Eric Reid should be fired from the NFL for demonstrating during the national anthem. Funny how that works.

So, no, maybe Carl Nassib could have played five seasons, rather than five weeks, as an openly gay player for Jon Gruden and not made an impact. Maybe Gruden could have coached an entire team of such players and still never saw them as anything but contemptible.

But maybe not. And that’s why Nassib is so important.

His presence alone is something. Gruden may have been too closed-minded to change his opinions but certainly some teammates, some coaches, some executives in the Raiders organization or elsewhere in the league are watching and moving away from an era of ignorance.

The quickest way for racism or anti-gay or antisemitism or Islamophobia or any other prejudice to go away is through direct contact with each other. It’s why major cities and major corporations or big factories tend to produce such an understanding. You begin to see the “other” person as a reliable co-worker or neighbor. You find common ground in common interests.

Progress can be slow. It is still progress, though.

The NFL has a tragic past when it comes to the acceptance of gay players. The Jon Gruden mindset is why they've always remained closeted. A slur here. A look there. It’s resulted in suicides and drug abuse and all sorts of personal tragedies.

It's not just an NFL problem. Research shows gay teenagers are five times more likely to commit suicide as they struggle with the issue. There’s a reason, coincidentally, the NFL aired a commercial during "Monday Night Football" in support of the Trevor Project, which “provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning young adults.”

"Football is for everyone," the commercial concludes.

So, yes, what Carl Nassib did last offseason was important, and courageous, and heroic even before he likely knew what his own coach privately thought of him or people like him.

“I just think that representation and visibility are so important,” Nassib said in June. “I actually hope that one day, videos like this and the whole coming out process are not necessary, but until then I will do my best to cultivate a culture that’s accepting and compassionate.”

Nassib isn’t going to be the last openly gay player in the NFL. More are coming. With any luck, it’ll be Jon Gruden’s mindset that will be the last of its kind.

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