But for the investigation of the Washington Football Team’s chronic atmosphere of workplace misconduct, the NFL wouldn’t be investigating Raiders coach Jon Gruden for an email sent to former Washington executive Bruce Allen. Still, now that the NFL has described the contents of the email as “denigrating, appalling, abhorrent, and contrary to our values of respect and inclusivity,” the NFL has to decide what to do about it.
The Personal Conduct Policy becomes the first place to search for potential grounds for discipline. Nothing in the current policy directly addresses the use of racist language in a communication with a third person, even if a violation from 10 years ago would qualify for discipline.
That said, the policy has a broad catch-all, prohibiting “conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL, NFL clubs, or NFL personnel.” It would be easy for the league to argue that Gruden’s comments fall within that standard.
Gruden would likely claim, if disciplined under that standard, that it was a private comment not a public statement. The league likely wouldn’t care.
The stronger argument against any type of discipline under the Personal Conduct Policy comes from the fact that Gruden made the comment when he wasn’t employed by any NFL team. The league could then try to claim that Gruden said what he said while working for an NFL broadcast partner, and that the definition of “workplace setting” in the policy pulls those remarks within its purview.
“The workplace setting means any location or conveyance used in connection with NFL activities, including the club facility, training camp, stadium, locker room, location at which a club-sponsored event takes place, and while traveling on team or NFL-related business,” the policy explains. While it would be a bit of a stretch, Gruden sending emails in his role as a high-profile employee of an NFL broadcast partner to a high-profile executive with an NFL team could qualify as behavior occurring within a “workplace setting.”
Ultimately, Gruden’s arguments and defenses may not matter. Just ask Saints coach Sean Payton about that; he was suspended for all of 2012 based on flimsy evidence and no meaningful basis for fighting it. Coaches have no union, and their rights if any flow through the league. Basically, if the league decides to take action against a coach, it will do it — and the coach won’t have many viable options in response. Unless Gruden wants to take a page from former Raiders owner Al Davis and sue the league, Gruden could have a hard time defeating any and all discipline the league may choose to impose, even if the Personal Conduct Policy doesn’t justify it.
The Raiders would have a hard time taking significant action against Gruden, up to and including firing him for cause and shutting off his right to any remaining guaranteed pay. Unless he signed paperwork when he was hired in 2018 promising that he has engaged in no past misbehavior of which the team isn’t aware and if the paperwork also reserves the right to fire him for cause if such behavior later comes to light, the Raiders will be stuck.
Then again, any discipline imposed by the team undoubtedly would be subject to the dispute-resolution procedures in nearly every coaching contract. That term requires the coach to pursue any rights or remedies through a grievance process that will be resolved by the Commissioner.
This, while on the surface it looks like the league’s and team’s options are limited, the absence of a union for coaches and the presence of contracts and policies that stack the deck in the favor of the league and the team will make it difficult for Gruden to defeat any and all punishment that the NFL or the Raiders may choose to impose.