Three weeks ago today, the Jon Gruden email scandal emerged out of the clear blue sky in the middle of a quiet Friday afternoon. Given that the target of his racist trope — NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith — faced within hours after the email surfaced a vote on whether his job would be declared open in March, many around the league wondered whether the email was leaked by someone who wanted to help Smith keep his job.
That theory has been mentioned in various settings and contexts since then. On Thursday, NFLPA president JC Tretter addressed the speculation for the first time.
Tretter made his remarks in response to an article by Andrew Brandt that appeared on SI.com. Tretter characterized the notion that someone leaked the email in order to help Smith as a “conspiracy theory about the NFLPA and our player leaders.”
Wrote Brandt of the leak: “Sure, the timing could have been a totally random coincidence and not meant to evoke at least one empathy vote to save Smith’s job. However, knowing the cutthroat nature of NFL business, it would not surprise me if the leaker(s) wanted to ensure that Smith — who has negotiated two decade-long CBAs that have served NFL ownership very well — kept his job. It seems as if whoever leaked these selected emails wanted 1) DeMaurice Smith to keep his job, and/or 2) Jon Gruden to lose his job, and/or 3) coverage diverted from other behavior to Gruden’s behavior.”
In response, Tretter says that the Gruden email about Smith was “never discussed” during the conference call that culminated in Smith getting just enough votes from the NFLPA board of player representatives (22 of them) to get another contract. “For Andrew to imply that our player leadership would cast pity votes in support of De or allow unrelated issues to cloud a critical union issue is insulting and ridiculous,” Tretter writes.
There’s a difference, however, between the motivation of the leaker and the impact of the leak on the intended audience. There’s no way to know whether one of the 22 who voted for Smith was on the fence in the hours preceding the vote, and whether the very stark, offensive example of the treatment Smith has endured on behalf of NFL players helped change that person’s mind. Regardless, it’s hardly a “conspiracy theory” to suggest that someone in a very high position with the NFL or one of its teams saw an opportunity to boost Smith by leaking that email when it was leaked. Frankly, it’s far closer to Occam’s razor.
Brandt isn’t the only one who has said what he said. I’ve said it. Multiple times. However, Brandt has had a not-so-subtle bias against current NFLPA leadership, criticizing both the 2011 CBA and the 2020 version of it from behind what many regard as a not-so-thinly-veiled ambition to join the union as part of the post-Smith regime. Indeed, Brandt adds to his column the self-aggrandizing “disclosure” that he “was approached about” the NFLPA executive director position “a couple of times, though not recently, and decided against it.” We’re not aware of Brandt’s name ever emerging as a potential NFLPA executive director; his name had been mentioned as someone who would potentially be hired by a new executive director, possibly as in-house counsel.
Regardless, there’s a history of animosity between the current NFLPA and Brandt, which makes it not surprising that Tretter specifically targeted Brandt for saying something that plenty of others have said. And even if the leaked email didn’t help Smith win the vote, it’s reasonable to think someone who had access to the Gruden emails concluded that it couldn’t hurt.