Jon Gruden talking to a Black referee. (Image: Creative Commons)
Jon Gruden talking to a Black referee. (Image: Creative Commons)

I’m obsessed with the U.S. football fiasco proliferating around Jon Gruden: player, coach, commentator. It spills in so many directions.

An inclusive spectacle of offensiveness. In a cesspit of emails between Gruden and the boss of the “Washington Football Team” — formerly the Redskins, a name they took forever to grudgingly dump — Gruden said of player’s union head DeMaurice Smith: “Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of Michelin tires.”

That’s almost a moment of racism nostalgia. It isn’t systemic, it’s raw and personal, sheer individual bile. It belongs to the lynching era, if that’s over. The systemic part comes in it being institutionalized among league mainstays. The emails include misogyny; homophobia; and, disgust with those worried about their kids’ concussions, and with kneeling against racism during the anthem.

Did they think no one would uncover the emails? No, they felt immune to consequences. They had cause. Gruden moved from role to role, though his record was spotty. Now he’s left a 10-year contract with the Las Vegas (previously Oakland) Raiders and is unlikely to return to broadcasting. He won’t tower over football now, but don’t exclude him running as a Trumpian.

The Cultural Icon complex. U.S. football throws up figures like Gruden periodically. Like Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne, who inspired his trailing team at halftime by saying, “Let’s go, girls!” Or Vince Lombardi: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” The point isn’t that they said these things, but that they were glorified for them. In hockey, Rocket Richard needed to win, and Conn Smythe said you had to beat them in the alley to beat them on the ice — but it wasn’t raised to national ideology. Among broadcasters, we had Don Cherry, but he wasn’t a link in a chain. Howie Meeker preceded him. I rest my case.

The Canadian connection. Bear with me here. The first Black quarterback in pro football was American but played in Canada: Bernie Custis in 1951, with Hamilton. He grew up in Philadelphia and starred in high school, then at Syracuse University. He was drafted by the Cleveland Browns but they wanted him to play safety, on defence. There was a pervasive canard that Black people weren’t smart enough to quarterback. So Custis came here, and stayed. After a superb career he coached brilliantly, taught public school and became a principal. Hamilton now has Bernie Custis Secondary School.

At Syracuse, Custis roomed with Al Davis, who became a legendary figure in U.S. football as coach, owner and gadfly, perhaps comparable in irascibility and creativity to baseball’s Bill Veeck. Davis grew up Jewish in Brooklyn during the Jackie Robinson years, and shared the liberal Jewish values of that time. He refused to let his Oakland Raiders play in Alabama to protest segregation; or go to cities where they’d have to stay in separate hotels. He was the first NFL owner to hire a Black head coach, and woman chief executive. He also hired Jon Gruden to coach, then traded him (when coach trades were fairly common).

Rooming in college is not a small thing; you remember it. Robinson himself began his MLB career in Montreal. Another Jewish American, Lew Hayman, signed the first Black U.S. football player in Canada, Herb Trawick, in 1946.

The Oedipal thing. After Davis’s death, his only child, Mark, took over the Raiders and hired Gruden back. He called it his “dream hire.” This week he tersely accepted Gruden’s resignation after the emails spewed forth. It’s not hard to imagine a son’s effort to surpass dad in at least one respect. Or wonder what kind of conversations between him and Al, RIP, have been ongoing lately.

Put in context. The Colin Kaepernick saga dwarfs the Gruden affair, even as it frames it. For protesting racial injustice, Kaepernick has still not been offered a job as quarterback. What might Al Davis have done?

Our own record is meh. Not just in hockey, but football: the “Eskimos” (ditched simultaneously with Redskins) or “Indian Jack” Jacobs. If we look good, it’s usually in contrast with the U.S.: their health care, wars, racism. There’s no escaping that context — it makes us who we are, it defines us. Invidious comparisons with the U.S. aren’t a bug in our identity. They’re a feature.

This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star. 


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.