Opinion: Jon Gruden's emails not just an NFL problem. They're symbolic of societal white grievance.

Mike Freeman
USA TODAY

If you want to fully understand why Jon Gruden resigned Monday after a trove of racist and misogynistic emails was unearthed like a giant vat of radioactive material, you must go back in time, from this week, this year, even this decade. You must go back to Nov. 4, 2008, when a Black man was elected President of the United States.

When Barack Obama and his family stood before the world that election night, the belief is that moment accelerated the sense among some white conservatives that they were losing "their" country.

Gruden's email trail begins in 2011 and goes to 2018, and his outbursts parallel a yellow brick road of white grievance during that time span. In 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in all states. The transgender community began asserting itself. Eight years before that, Nancy Pelosi became the first woman elected Speaker of the House. Conservatives saw NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick disrespecting "their" flag on the field of the sport they loved.

Fox News and other right-wing media saw all of this and fueled the belief that the social changes meant white people were under attack. 

Raiders coach Jon Gruden resigned Monday night.

“What’s always interesting to me is the degree to which you’ve seen created in Republican politics the sense that white males are victims,” Obama said in 2020. “They are the ones who are under attack – which obviously doesn’t jive with both history and data and economics. But that’s a sincere belief, that’s been internalized, that’s a story that’s being told, and how you unwind that is going to be not something that is done right away.”

All of this is the key to the Gruden story.

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Gruden's email reactions are about something bigger than sports. They read like a road map of white grievance and go to a larger issue of how a significant swath of white men (not all, of course) feel about the changing power dynamics in the country.

Former President Donald Trump rose to power assailing Obama as a fake American, railing against immigrants, wanting to ban Muslims, and he had a lengthy history of being accused of sexual assault. Trump also attacked Kaepernick. He recognized that white grievance was a selling point, the way a top chef sees that a certain combination of ingredients creates a meal with a nice kick.

Gruden's emails hit all of these points. It's rare to peel back a public curtain and see unvarnished, white grievance bro culture in action, but that's what you see with his emails. Gruden hits all the familiar targets. He denounced the emergence of women game officials, hated the drafting of gay player Michael Sam and attacked Kaepernick and protesting players.

As The New York Times noted, Gruden also criticized Obama during his re-election campaign in 2012, as well as then-Vice President Joseph Biden, whom Gruden called a “nervous clueless (expletive).” He used similar words to describe NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, head of the union.

Again, notice the targets. The Black president. The Black union head, with Gruden using a racist trope to describe him. The gay player. The women refs. He mocked Caitlyn Jenner, a transgender woman. 

The shredding of Black people, the attacking of Black power, the attacking of powerful women, the attempt to diminish gay people, the attack on a transgender person. This is the White Male Grievance Hall of Fame. The only thing missing is a cameo from Curt Schilling and a video essay from Tucker Carlson.

You cannot tell the story of Gruden without telling the story of American white grievance.

There's another part of this story that's important. Gruden was also possibly supercharged by the environment created by Goodell and much of league ownership. When Goodell had his chance to push back against the grievance, particularly when it came to the protest movement, he mostly ignored the players. This energized the more extreme elements in the league who saw Black men protesting and, to me, felt an even deeper sense of losing power.

Goodell had to apologize for not listening to the players sooner after the murder of George Floyd last year.

The league never punished former Texans owner Bob McNair after he referred to players as "inmates." When McNair walked away unscathed after calling players criminals, it was again a wink and nod to the grievance community.

What Gruden wrote in those emails was disgraceful. But it also followed a pattern, a predictable one, that's been developing since 2008 and started outside of the NFL.

It is grievance.