Regina de Heer: What do you think about social issues and political commentary making its way into spaces outside of politics like sports?
John: It's terrible. It's just not right. Sports is the sport. It's like template and everything else, you just be what it is.
Nidi: I just don't think it should be political to not be racist or not be sexist. I don't think there's a problem with expecting somebody who is a public figure and is in charge of a very well-known team to not be racist.
Regina: When you hear of these frequent controversies, how does it make you feel about something like sports?
Nidi: There is an issue within pretty much every field of all of these different deep-seated social justice issues to cut everything out of your life is just impossible. We can call out these people but we shouldn't just be like, "All right, we're never watching football again."
Kai Wright: This is the United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. This week, we are talking football. We are in the heart of the NFL season and it does appear to be as popular as ever. The league just announced that the average game this season has had more than 17 million viewers, which is a huge increase from last season. This, despite all that the league has endured. It has repeatedly been at the center of our national culture wars.
There were the revelations of brain-damaging concussions and the conversations that spurred about fetishizing violence and about the corruption that seems endemic among the rich and the powerful. There was Colin Kaepernick and the conversations since banishment started about really everything from the role of protest in sports, labor organizing, free speech, and on and on and on. Now, one of the league's most high-profile coaches and a formerly marquee name at ESPN is this subject of this week's culture war.
The coach, Jon Gruden of the Las Vegas Raiders has resigned after the New York Times published the details of his email exchanges with other powerful people in the league spanning more than a decade in which he repeatedly said horribly racist, sexist, and homophobic things about everybody from the commissioner to the referees and in which he exchanged topless feathers with cheerleaders. Now, to sum, this did not come as a shock. Rich white guy in the NFL is a bigot. Who knew? To others, Gruden has become the latest martyr. Another white man taken down by the dark and feminine forces of wokeness.
As we started talking about this story on our team over the past week, we got curious about what is probably a much larger group, which is those of you out there who just love the sport and maybe don't know how to square that love with stuff like this. As we talked about that, it felt like a really useful way to have a conversation that actually goes beyond football about what it does or doesn't matter when this kind of bigotry shows up in our communities and corners of our lives that we otherwise cherish and about how we react when that happens.
Maybe we can learn something from how the football fans and Magus here are reacting to Jon Gruden. I'll be joined later by sportswriter and podcaster Dave Zirin, who is himself coming to us straight from a football game. We're going to take your calls on a few different questions. Hopefully, we can get to all of them. Here's my first question. If you watch football, what do you get out of it? Maybe it's community, for instance. What does that look like?
My second question is if you're watching football, how has this business of Jon Gruden's bigoted emails come up amongst the people you're watching it with? Can you share anything about the conversation that has emerged in your fan world? We'll talk with Dave Zirin and take your calls right after a break.
Kousha: Hey, everyone. It's Kousha. I'm a producer. Last week, we challenged you to ask someone in your life whether they believe racism is permanent in America and to report back to us. Here's a response from James Albro in New York, who's an activist for homo's rights.
James Albro: We will be a non-racist country if we stop intentionally segregating ourselves from one another. I don't know how we get there but we will be a racist society as long as we are segregated from one another. What is going to make us not be segregated? I'm not sure but I'm sure that that's the only way we will get around this. There's no social program. There's no intellectual high jinks. People have to start living with one another and accepting them as they are and finding the beauty in the other race, not just something to not like.
Kousha: Please keep sending your responses. Is racism permanent in America? If yes, what does that mean for our individual actions? If no, what is left for us to do? Email your recording or message to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright. I'm joined now by a friend of the show, who's becoming our go-to source for sports conversations. Dave Zirin is a columnist and host of the Edge of Sports podcast and editor for The Nation magazine and author of many books, most recently, The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. Dave, welcome back.
Dave Zirin: Oh, it's great to be here. Thanks so much for having me.
Kai Wright: Well, thank you for coming. I know that we dragged you, in fact, out of your football Sunday. You came to us from a game, right? What game were you at?
Dave Zirin: I was at the Baltimore Ravens game against the Los Angeles Chargers who I still occasionally call the San Diego Chargers. I'll admit that. The Baltimore Ravens won 34 to 6. It was a great time. I was with my kid, I was with my father-in-law, and we had fun.
Kai Wright: All right. Well, that's a good segue to the question that I want to start with. The same question I asked our listeners before we get into all the gritty details of Jon Gruden and there is much to discuss. Answer that first part of the question that I put out to callers. You're a football fan. Why do you watch? What does it do for you?
Dave Zirin: Well, a couple of things. First and foremost, I'm somebody who lives in a community that has largely been hollowed out. So many communities. I have no Elks club, I have no union, I have no central meeting place to discuss with people what's going on in the world. In my community, like in so many communities, nature abhors a vacuum so you have football, and football becomes something that's a point of bonding between house to house, community to community, neighbors, the parents of my kids' friends.
It can become this common language that we're able to discuss. I think football is really the closest thing in our divisive country that we have to a common language in a monoculture at this point in 2021.
Kai Wright: Wow. That's pretty strong endorsement, that common thing, the closest thing we've got common language. Wow.
Dave Zirin: No, no, no. I want to be really clear about this. It's not an endorsement. I feel like it's much more of an-- Actually, I think it's a darn shame and a crying shame. I think it's also about recognizing objective reality. It's like the old expression. You don't have to believe in gravity to fall out of an airplane.
You don't have to think football is a good thing or a positive thing or any sort of productive moral force because I don't think it is but it still is that glue that can tie a community together in absence of other social bonds, which have been frayed so dramatically over the last 20, 30, 40 years.
Kai Wright: It's a statement of its power. It's power in people's personal lives, which is I think what's important here. Now, Dave, help us lay out just the dirty details of this story for the non-football fans out there because it's kind of a doozy. Let's start with who Jon Gruden is inside the league and what it is he's done. Get us all read in.
Dave Zirin: Absolutely. Jon Gruden for years has been one of the most prominent front and center personalities in the entire world of the National Football League because he had the plumb broadcasting job. After spending over a decade as a coach in the National Football League, the blonde, very handsome, very articulate Gruden became the color commentator or the analyst as it were on Monday Night Football. That's as plum as it gets in the world of National Football League broadcasting.
He effectively became one of the faces of the league until about four years ago when he was hired on a 10-year $100 million contract to coach the Oakland Raiders. Now, what was significant about this hire was that everyone knew they were going to leave Oakland. First, it was thought they were going to go to Los Angeles and that they lost the going to Los Angeles in a bidding war but then the true plum, and I'm using that word a lot but this is the true plum, which is going to Las Vegas. Now, the Oakland Raiders are the Las Vegas Raiders. They've opened it like a $2 billion stadium and Gruden was really going to be the face of that. The NFL going into Las Vegas and it's more than just going into Vegas, it's about the NFL entering the lucrative world of gambling, which just produces billions of dollars in revenue. That's a stream that beforehand did not exist. Gruden was really the person with his hand on the lever for this entirely new opening of revenue for the National Football League.
Kai Wright: This is how important this guy is, he's sitting at the center of it, then these emails come out. One, how did we find out about the emails and what was in them?
Dave Zirin: First of all, people have to understand this. This isn't really a Gruden email story, it's a Washington Football Team story. People might hear that and go, "Huh? What are you talking about? You're just talking about the Las Vegas Raiders." Here's the thing. There's an investigation going on into rampant sexual harassments and worse, among the Washington Football Team and the relationships, and I use that word in huge quotes, between team executives, and the cheerleaders.
There were over 650,000 emails that were collected by the National Football League as part of their internal investigation into the culture of the team. What you have right now are some leaks and we don't know where the leaks are coming from. There's so much conjecture over this, it's like a game of clue. People are trying to figure out, who is leaking this. The leaks that have come out and there have only been a couple of leaks like a few emails.
In the few emails that have been leaked, as you said, show Gruden to use racist, sexist, and homophobic language in communications with Bruce Allen, who in addition to being the former team president of the Washington Football Team, is also the brother of George Allen, who you might remember is the former governor of Virginia, whose presidential aspirations were torn apart when he used himself, used a racial slur to describe an opposing campaign staffer. People might remember that story. It was him and Bruce Allen having these communications.
It was him sending these disgusting verbiage over the course of seven years to Bruce Allen and to other very, very powerful people like the co-founder of the Hooters restaurant chain and the founder of a very prominent fried chicken consortium in the Southeast of the United States. Among these good old boys, there's no other way to put it, of very wealthy white folks, white men, they're trading in this very derisive language. That caused such a huge storm that Gruden, even though this was against so strongly the wishes of the franchise owner of the Las Vegas Raiders, Mark Davis, Gruden found himself out of a job.
Kai Wright: What blows my mind is, as I read about these emails, it's a lot of it sounds really defensive, right? It's a lot of like making fun of the fact that there's a woman who's refereeing, it's that making fun of that there's a gay player who's been drafted, it's the Black head of the Players Association, this and that other racial slur.
I think about, this is a guy, as you said, making a $100 million over 10 years, he got a big respected name, unmatched fairly influence and power in his world and yet he feels this threatened by a gay player and a woman being a ref. I don't know, that level of fragility is shocking to me. I don't know why it is and I-- [crosstalk]
Dave Zirin: It's interesting, Kai, because we can talk about it as fragility and I do think that's a part of it. I also think it helps to think of it as comfort. That here are these a wealthy, white, people of tremendous power and influence, who lord over a game that's played 70% by Black American players. Also, a league, by the way, that 47% of its fan base are women, and yet, they are in this cosseted Country Club of rich, white men who run the sport.
They feel so comfortable throwing these words around, no sense of, I don't think appreciation is the right word, but no sense of respect, I guess is the word I'm looking for, for the people that actually make the game what it is. You can cut the revenue in half if women are out of the equation. If you cut Black players out of the equation, there is no National Football League, unless you really like place kicking an offensive lineman. You're in this position where it's been like a window for people to hear what many of us have always suspected.
The reason why this attitude is always been suspected is because there's this racial contradiction that really oversees the entire sport, that the sport is almost based upon, in that you have Black players, and almost exclusively white ownership. That filters down into almost exclusively white executives, almost exclusively white coaches, and there's an institutionalized racism in the NFL that they deny when pressed on it. Then you see these emails and for a lot of folks it's been like, "Bang, there it is. Please, no longer spit in my face and tell me it's raining."
Kai Wright: Yes. Well, let's go to some callers. Let's go to Dorian in Queens. Dorian, welcome to the show.
Dorian: Hi, Kai, very nice to speak with you, I'm honored to do so. I want to just address a specific aspect of what I find to be the hypocrisy of the situation, which is the specifically you talked about Coach Gruden sending pictures of topless cheerleaders and denigrating the cheerleaders. The hypocrisy I want to address is, I don't understand why football games and it's a very violent sport but I also find it to be a very beautiful sport in many ways. I don't understand what, having these hyper-sexualized women in these very tight outfits, doing things that are frankly sexualized has to do with the sport or even cheerleading.
We see cheerleading at college football games, it's actually leading cheers. I don't see men in very tight clothes dancing in that way at WNBA games. That's, to me, a further hypocrisy that I think can be addressed, as why are women put in this situation at a football game, what does it even have to do with the game, really?
Kai Wright: Dorian, before I get Dave's answers to that, I take it you are a football watcher, it sounds like.
Kai Wright: Why? What is it that it brings for you?
Dorian: I enjoy the strategy, I enjoy the athleticism and sometimes, there's just such a beauty when a quarterback can throw a 50-yard pass to somebody running at full speed and that passes caught on their fingertips or when there's some amazing end-around run where these players shift positions and move in a strategic way to block out the others or there's an amazing defensive play where you can see that he read the quarterback. All of that, there's a beauty in the sport, a strategy, a finesse that I really appreciate.
Kai Wright: Yes. Has this news of Jon Gruden come up for the people you're talking to, your friends and your fan group and if so, how are you guys talking--? [crosstalk]
Dorian: Yes, we're aware of it. Some of my friends [unintelligible 00:17:37] another one, like I'm meeting another need to thing. Some of my friends say, "Why are they digging up 10-year-old emails? They had these or trying to get him." Some of them say, "Yes, he deserves to be kicked out. These things are unconscionable, both on a racial basis and a gender basis." I'm saying, I hear what all my friends are saying and I understand and I accept it with an open mind. I don't know what's right, but I do find a contradiction.
As I said, you talked about the specific aspect of him showing pictures of topless cheerleaders and some of the sexualized stuff that was done in these emails, and I say, there's an even deeper inherent contradiction here.
Kai Wright: Thank you for that, Dorian. Dave, what about that? What about the sexual harassment and the sexualization of this in the first place? As you said, this is comes out of an investigation into sexual harassment at the Washington Football Team, but I also just wonder about the deeper cultural question that Dorian's posing there in terms of what the cheerleaders and the sexualized cheerleaders say about who this is supposed to be for in the first place?
Dave Zirin: Yes, in all things we can blame the Dallas Cowboys for this. Cheerleading dates back in the NFL to the 1960s with the Baltimore Colts, that was the first team to ever have a cheerleading squad. They're now called, of course, the Indianapolis Colts and it was very, I don't know what the word for it would be, very proper. The role of cheerleaders. It was like in the college format of leading cheers and you would have men helping to lead the cheers and all the rest of it. It was the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s who took it to that very hyper-sexualized place. It became wildly popular as part of branding the Cowboys as America's team. Team after team followed suit in that way. Today, cheerleaders are more than just people who are on the field. They're people who are actors' emissaries for the team, in the other days of the week and do public relations events. They're the public face of these different teams. In the Washington Football Team case, they're also quite heroic in coming forward in a very difficult situation to speak about the reality of how they're treated and it's as ugly as one might fear.
Hopefully, they're listened to now because one of the things that cheerleader if people want to support them, what they're calling for is the release of all 650,000 emails. We've literally seen a dozen out of 650,000. An anonymous source said to the Associated Press, "All the racism, sexism, and homophobia has been revealed. The other emails are great." First of all, the Associated Press never should have printed one with that story based on one anonymous source. I think there's a journalistic issue there. Also, I think that what we have in front of us is a scandal that's not going anywhere.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Joe in Queens. Joe, welcome to the show.
Joe: Hi, thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: You're a football fan, I take it.
Joe: I am a very proud Indianapolis Colts fan, very proud Hoosier. I'm originally from Indiana, so I'm just such an intense fan of the idea of the Colts.
Kai Wright: I too am from Indiana and was an Indianapolis Colts fan when I was younger as well. Why do you watch and has this come up in your circles?
Joe: I watch less about the strategy of the sport, as the previous caller mentioned, they like to enjoy, but I watch for nostalgia. I really am always rooting for Indiana. It's not just athletics but to improve. Indiana has certainly had a history of racism and bigotry. Among my group of friends and family, I like to think some of the voices who try and chat about against that and use social media and promotes good things that are happening in our own state, good things that the team are doing.
Teams do community events and community services and the only thing that we can do is really try and promote the good things that are happening. I watch for nostalgia, I watch because I'm incredibly proud to be from Indiana and I'm always rooting for progress to be made there.
Kai Wright: Thanks for that, Joe. It reminds me of myself, to be honest, because I too when I was watching, it was a lot about nostalgia. I can remember speaking to the Colts. I remember before the Colts came to Indianapolis. My dad and my uncle would go, they would drive up to Northern Indiana to get a hotel room to be in the Chicago Bears viewing area so that we could watch Bears games together. It would just be so exciting, this time that we would spend together, and a lot of that was stamped on me.
This is again what you were talking about when we started our conversation just about, it's one of the things that gives us a shared language or gives us some community.
Dave Zirin: Yes, that's something that keeps me coming back even when I see all the problems with it. I like to think that a couple of things. First is that we need to think less about rejecting parts of our culture. Not just football, but parts of our culture that we find to be objectionable and fight to reclaim them. I think people take that as a given when it comes to things like film, or television, or radio. You hear people say that all the time, "I'm going to make better films. I'm going to do better TV. I'm going to do better radio to wrested away from forces of reaction."
When it comes to sports, people sometimes treat it the way a vegetarian treats a McRib, you just push it away and say, "This is inherently awful. Everything about it is awful." When, in fact, there are good things there, but you got to fight for those good things and fight to reject what you don't like.
Kai Wright: We'll take a short break and we'll come back and take more of your calls with sportswriter, Dave Zirin. If you're a football fan, we want to know why. If you are watching, we want to know if this news about Jon Gruden's negative emails has come up in your circles. What's the conversation you're having? How are you handling it? 646-435-7280, that's 646-435-7280, or tweet us using the #USofAnxiety. We're going to talk about leadership models, some of us learned from football, and why all of this matters beyond the NFL. Stay with us.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright, and I'm talking with sportswriter, Dave Zirin, host of the Edge of Sports podcast and author of several books, most recently The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. We've been talking about the latest NFL scandal involving now-former Las Vegas Raiders coach, Jon Gruden. He's resigned after years of his email exchange with other powerful people in the league became public, revealing a torrent of racist, and misogynist, and homophobic conversations about other people in the league.
Dave, let me play Saturday Night Live last night, had a skit about this story where they spoofed NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, trying to do damage control on this even while he himself was the target of a lot of the name-calling. Here's a bit of that skit.
Roger Goodell: Good evening. Hi, I'm Roger Goodell. When you see me on TV, it's never good.
This time one of our coaches is accused of racism, misogyny, and homophobia, but hey, at least no one's talking about concussions.
I think we can all agree the emails sent by Raiders Coach, Jon Gruden, were horrifying and deeply offensive, especially to me. I was referred to as the F-word, the P-word, the C-word, the R-word, the effing R-word, and the effing R-word-P-word. Once weirdly, I was called a DILF.
That was sweet. I assure you all 32 teams in our league understand that diversity is our strength, and I know our Black coaches would agree.
Both of them.
Kai Wright: Dave, the part of the joke here is that there's been scandal-after-scandal with the NFL. Why Roger Goodell? Why was he such a target for Jon Gruden and the folks who don't like change in the league?
Dave Zirin: Kai, first of all, what's the R-word? This one is causing me to get a little--
Kai Wright: Well, I don't want to speculate on the radio.
Dave Zirin: Okay, let's not speculate. I grew up in New York City, so I like to think I have a healthy vocabulary. That one's a bit of a surprise. Here's the thing, before Roger Goodell, commissioners of the National Football League cared about nothing more than profit, bottom-line stuff, and they were very transparent about it. Like, "This is what we're about. We're the NFL, we play football. You don't like it, don't watch." Roger Goodell his approach is best summed up by a slogan, "Football is family." It's this idea that football should be everything to everybody.
Football should be a voice against breast cancer. Football should be a voice to fight violence against women. Both of those things very much geared towards this growing audience of women football fans. Football should be a voice against racism, with what they've got, end racism in the end zones and people can wear anti-racist decals on their helmets. It's this idea of him, I think, being way too big for his shoes, as it were. Thinking that football, which is a very violent sport that has a very nasty underbelly, can somehow be this shining light on a hill for the entire nation.
That's what really gets him in a lot of trouble sometimes because the reality is that when you have a violent game, with lots of money, and lots of drugs, and when I say drugs, I'm more talking about legal drugs to shoot people up to make sure they're out on the field even if they're hurts, you're going to have conflict and you're going to have problems. When you have a sport that's so deeply invested in white supremacy at the top of the sport among franchise ownership, these instances like what happened with Gruden are more of an inevitability.
Scandal is more of an inevitability than good times and us people rejoicing and saying, "Yay, football is family."
Kai Wright: It's interesting. It starts to sound quite a metaphor for the country at large. That there's all of these words, right?
Dave Zirin: Yes.
Kai Wright: About what a liberal and a plural society should look like. That the people who hold the power are not prepared to have that society and they'll run you right out of town if you try to do that as a leader.
Dave Zirin: Also, similarly, like you have a situation where Jon Gruden's words were important in these emails, but you see the NFL turn the volume up to 20 and say, "This is an outrage about these emails." Let's just not talk about how many Black executives there are. Let's just not talk about how many Black coaches there are. Let's not just talk about the realities of the health care that we offer to players after they retire. I did a book with Michael Bennett, former Seattle Seahawks called Things That Make White People Uncomfortable. That was Michael's idea for the title and it made me a little uncomfortable, but that's okay. Michael's whole point, his thesis for the book is like, "Yo, this is going to make you uncomfortable, but guess what? The NFL is a segregated product, not an integrated product." We are actively watching segregation because there's a segregation between those who manage and own franchises and those who actually play and bear the brunt of the pain of the work.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Jen in Waynesville, North Carolina. Jen, welcome to show.
Jen: Hi, thanks for having me on. I must say I'm not a big fan of football. I guess I'm indifferent to football but I don't regularly watch. I maybe watch one game every few years. The whole culture that concerns me is the behavior of men specifically, and I'm going to say, white men because really, white men are in charge of the country, they make the laws, they just hold so many positions of power.
When it comes to racist behavior, misogyny, rape of women and children, I just see that this behavior is not going to stop until men, but specifically, white men decide that it's going to stop because of the position of power that white men typically hold in our culture. I don't see these problems as stopping until white men get the balls or just to hold each other accountable and say, "This is not okay." As a white woman, if I hear someone make a racist comment, I say something. I hold the person accountable because we as white people, we're not supreme.
White supremacy and again, the racist behavior, it just all needs to stop. It is white men predominantly who need to hold each other, accountable, and decide that it's going to stop.
Kai Wright: Jen, thank you for that. Dave, on this question of, one thing she's getting to is who is on the receiving end of Jon Gruden's messages? We've talked about Bruce Allen. What are you hearing or what are we hearing about the response from everybody else in the NFL to Jen's point? Are there other people standing up and saying-- Particularly, are the white man, either owners or stars in the league standing up and saying no?
Dave Zirin: No. What you're getting is a lot of eye rolls because of the line from the NFL that, "Well, this is a Gruden problem, or that this is a Bruce Allen problem," and not something that's far more systemic. There are other folks who are pointing out that one of the things that Jon Gruden talks about is Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, two players who took a knee in opposition to police violence and racial inequity about how they should be forced out of the game. This is something where there's a lot about it, unfortunately, and I say that very unfortunately.
The response really has been much more about cynicism and being like, this is exactly what the league is. I don't want this to be a cynical moment because cynicism usually leads to passivity. I want this to be a moment where all the forces in the NFL, the union is doing this, and several very prominent reporters are doing this, and the Washington Football cheerleaders are doing this, but I want to hear the players, the coaches, executives, all calling for these emails to be released, all 650,000, and have a real house cleaning of the National Football League.
Kai Wright: I do want to play a little bit of what another coach did say in response to the scandal, because his comments, at least it seems to me have been a little viral online. This is Los Angeles Chargers' Coach Brandon Staley, at a press conference this week.
Brandon Staley: This is what I think about it. I think that respect and trust in this world are really, really difficult to achieve. I think about all the people that were affected by those emails, whether you're a person of color, whether you're a person-- a gender, your sexual orientation. The people that were affected by those emails, that's who I'm thinking about because it's a sacred mantle for someone to call you coach or someone to call you a leader. Trust is really, really hard to achieve in this world. It's really, really challenging to achieve. Especially with people with those groups that I just mentioned.
People are really guarded and skeptical of people because of emails like that. I just think that kindness and lifting people up and respecting people you don't know, I just think that that's such a big part of our thing here is listening to people and learning about people because I think what you'll discover is that we have so much more in common than not.
Kai Wright: Dave, I play that because of the bit about leadership and trust. We've been talking about professional football, but I'm also thinking a lot about people associated with the sport all the way down the line. While I was playing football as a kid, leadership values were just a huge part of what I remember learning. I guess I just want to hear you respond to Coach Staley with say his remarks with that context.
Dave Zirin: First of all, I think people might understand why people call Brandon Staley Ted Lasso. It has that effect where you feel a little better about yourself and about humanity after you hear him talk. Credit to Brandon Staley for doing that because this has been a real problem where there were more people after Jon Gruden's first email was released, which was "just racist." The others hadn't come out yet, where more people were defending Jon Gruden than defending DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association we attacked with racist verbiage.
As to what you're saying, this is something that I found in doing this book, The Kaepernick Effect, and interviewing a lot of high school students about their activism and how their coaches responded is that there really are two kinds of coaches, the transactional and the transformational. The transactional coach is there in it for themselves and how coaching makes them feel. They don't view it as a sacred title, the way Brandon Staley said. Then there's the transformational, who views coaching as a way to figure out how to raise up the young people that are in their charge.
I think we should really go forward and look much more sharply at some of these coaches, and ask ourselves that question, who's transactional and who's transformational? Maybe that's less important at the professional level, but at the youth sports level, I think that we should have a very, very strict approach to judging the people coaching our kids.
Kai Wright: What kind of stuff were you hearing from kids in the book when you've gone out and you've talked to people about this Kaepernick effect? What did you hear?
Dave Zirin: I heard so much that-- Someone joked with me that the book should be called, What to Expect When you're Protesting, like What to Expect When You're Expecting because there's so many different-- I interviewed dozens and dozens of people and the young people, all sorts of different things happened. In some cases, the coach threw him off the team. In other cases, the coach took it as a learning opportunity to bring everybody together and talk as a team, and really take that phrase about a sports team being like a family and taking that seriously.
Saying, "Well, if some members of our family are unhappy, then we all need to talk about it and speak about racism and police brutality as a team." That made all the difference for these young people like whether or not they had a positive experience from protesting, and by protesting, I mean, taking a knee during the anthem, or if they had a negative, even scarring experience. It all depended really on whether or not the coach was willing to step up and provide leadership at that very tenuous moment or if they step backwards and let the weight of the world fall on the shoulders of these young people.
Kai Wright: It gets to the question of why any of this matters. I can imagine a lot of people and myself too, sometimes, like, "Oh, who cares? The National Football League is full of billionaires and millionaires." There's this rich white guy who's a racist, lo and behold, shocking. It has this echo effect in our culture. When you talk about the community that people-- football is our only shared language. Why does it? Why do we have to care if Jon Gruden is a racist?
Dave Zirin: The trickle-down effect is very real. In terms of how not just coaches but how I would argue white people more broadly, think it's acceptable or not acceptable to speak about other people in the human family. Football is such a powerful cultural weathervane. If Jon Gruden is able to be rehired as an announcer, as a coach very quickly, without making any kinds of amends, or anything like that, or going on any journey that he shares publicly, it sends a heck of a message out there.
A message that I think is going to be very well received by 40% of the country who's like, "Why should he have to apologize? Why should he have to do anything? This is about the thought police. Who cares what he thinks?" [crosstalk]
Kai Wright: There is a great deal of that going on. Gruden is becoming a martyr to those who feel like the great brigade is erasing white men. We were monitoring a bunch of online chatter earlier today even. During game day, we figured let's see what's going on, where our producer, Kousha was on the Reddit board r/Conservative and there was this conversation coming from an article from a conservative journal called American Greatness. The title said the Jon Gruden controversy is another reason why conservatives should turn off the NFL. There's just all of these comments about the hypocrisy allowing Black players to get away with things that are awful and why weren't they fired? Rampant domestic abuse is forgivable, but hurting a gay person's feelings is too far? What even are liberal priorities anymore. There's this conversation about boycotting the NFL amongst them. I guess one, just your reaction to that conversation, like why isn't it hypocrisy or is it hypocrisy? Two, does the NFL care? Does this matter to the NFL that this community of people is like, "Okay, we might be done with you"?
Dave Zirin: Of course, it's hypocrisy and it's so funny to see that conservative talking point because, of course, there should be zero tolerance for people who abuse people in their family. Why do you think there's not a more intelligent question from these folks, which they're not willing to ask is why that double standard exists in the first place? They don't want to answer that question because the double standard exists because the entire league rests upon this racial contradiction. Without a racial labor discipline, there is no National Football League.
That's one of the things that made Colin Kaepernick so dangerous because he was defying that by taking a knee. That's why they really had to drum him out of the league because he was sending a message to other Black players and white allies. "We don't have to take this. This is our platform. We built it." That runs against the very autocratic, very top-down structure of the National Football League. They don't want to raise or address those questions about white supremacy, racial hierarchies, labor.
That's not what they want. They just want to score Reddit points by being like, "Oh, why is this player allowed in the game and John Gruden, isn't?" It's just like, "That's so tired. Stop with the got-you arguments and address the true elephant in the room," which is that racism is endemic to the National Football League.
Kai Wright: What about in the other direction? We just got about 30 seconds, but does the NFL care about the fans who find Gruden offensive? It seems like they would because he's lost his job.
Dave Zirin: No, that's who the NFL cares about. Frankly, because they know that's the future. This young generation in this country play is more demographically diverse and less tolerant of intolerance than any generation in the history of the United States. The NFL knows that if they are going to have a future, they need to appease that generation.
Kai Wright: Dave Zirin is a columnist and host of the Edge of Sports Podcast, an editor for The Nation magazine and author of many books. Most recently, The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. Dave, a pleasure as always.
Dave Zirin: Thank you so much.
Kai Wright: The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by The Outer Borough Brass Band mixing by Jared Paul. Kevin Bristow and Matthew Miranda were at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillmann and Kousha Navidar, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter at Kai_Wright and as always, please join us for the live version of the show next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern, stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker, play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
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