But there is a bitter irony behind the coach of the Raiders becoming the focal point of a controversy over racism and intolerance in pro football.
The Raiders have broken one barrier after another
The Raiders, who were based in Oakland and Los Angeles before relocating to Las Vegas in 2020, were practicing diversity and inclusion before those terms became commonly used.
And they broke ground on the field as well as off.
Gruden’s emails weren’t just embarrassing. They dishonored the legacy of the franchise that he inherited as head coach.
Their franchise has working-class roots
In the hyper-masculine world of the NFL, there may be some who weren’t offended by Gruden’s comments. But the Raiders have traditionally been embraced by those who see themselves as outsiders. Raider fans have included everyone from Black Panther co-founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale to gangsta rappers such as Ice Cube to a devoted army of Mexican-American supporters.
Much of the team’s identity was formed in the 1960s and 1970s, when it was based in Oakland. It’s impossible to disentangle the Raiders’ reputation from its ties to this working-class city, says Peter Richmond, author of “Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden’s Oakland Raiders.”
If the Dallas Cowboys were known as “America’s team,” the Raiders were “America’s badasses” — a collection of misfits and renegades who wouldn’t fit on other NFL teams that emphasized conformity and militaristic discipline.
“In the seventies, when the team was half African-American, the stands in the Coliseum were equally black and white, and the tailgating parties the players joined in on after every game in the parking lots were always multiracial.”
And there was no other NFL owner quite like the late Al Davis, who gave the franchise its swashbuckling identity.
Davis was a civil rights pioneer on the gridiron. A colorful character who sported sunglasses and slicked-back hair, Davis in the 1960s refused to allow his team to play in cities where Whites and black players were required to stay in separate hotels.
He also recruited some of the Raiders’ best-known players from historically Black colleges and universities at a time when most NFL teams ignored those schools.
Some pointed to Davis’ upbringing to explain why he championed being inclusive when it wasn’t popular. As a teenager in New York City, he watched Jackie Robinson endure racist taunts as the first Black major league player with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Gruden’s downfall is part of a bigger NFL problem
The norm-busting culture that Davis built for the Raiders franchise seems increasingly out of step with the modern corporate NFL, which has become a multibillion-dollar business.
The NFL is now filled with players who grew up in an era of Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd video. About 70% of the NFL’s players are Black. The optics of a coaching fraternity made up of virtually all White men like Gruden bossing mostly Black and brown men around seems more anachronistic with each passing day.
The contemporary sports world has changed as well. With the help of social media, more players in the NFL, NBA and other professional sports now speak out on hot-button issues and exercise more financial control over their careers.
These two cultures within the modern NFL — majority-White owners versus majority-Black-and-brown players — are on a collision course. Gruden’s resignation won’t erase that tension. It will manifest itself in other ways.
Gruden’s resignation also won’t erase another bitter irony.
Al Davis and the Raiders were ahead of their time in the 1970s when they ignored the racial and gender stereotypes that had held the NFL back for years when it was a segregated league.
The comments attributed to Gruden suggest, though, that racism, sexism and homophobia still moves the chains in NFL circles. So do the numbers when you look at who runs the league.
It took a Raiders coach, of all people, to remind us that 40 years after the badass Raiders ruled pro football, the egalitarian spirit that’s central to the team’s mystique is still a rarity in the NFL.