The 21-page lawsuit filed on Thursday by former Raiders coach Jon Gruden against the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell contains a wide range of allegations regarding the league’s actions and motivations. As to one specific basis for the leak, Gruden’s claims miss the mark.
Three times, at paragraph 44, 50, and 115 of the document, Gruden contends that the league leaked his emails to former Washington Football Team executive Bruce Allen as a way to turn the page on the criticism of the league regarding its handling of the WFT investigation.
“Defendants attempted to create a distraction from the controversy over their handling of the Washington Football Team investigation by misusing documents from that investigation to publicly sabotage Gruden’s career,” the complaint alleges at paragraph 44. Then, at paragraph 50: “Defendants calculatingly released only a single email that they knew would harm Gruden and would take the focus off the Washington Football Team investigation.” Finally, Gruden alleges at paragraph 115 that the defendants “intentionally singled out Gruden to make him appear as the solitary bad actor at a time when Defendants were facing intense public scrutiny over the mismanagement of the Washington Football Team investigation.”
At the time the leaks of the Gruden emails began, no one was focusing on the WFT investigation. The league had managed to bury the story, announcing the punishment and conducting a media call on the afternoon of Thursday, July 1. Then, after the four-day Fourth of July weekend, everyone had moved on. Through the rest of July, all of August, and the entirety of September, the fact that the league had managed to bury all details regarding the WFT investigation never came up. No one cared. There was, as of early October, no controversy from which to distract.
The truth is that the Gruden emails created the broader problem for the league. The decision to select a sliver of 650,000 documents that took out Gruden caused many to notice, and to pursue, the efforts of the league to hide information that, if disclosed, may have made it untenable for Daniel Snyder to continue as the team’s owner. The Gruden leaks were followed by leaks of emails between Allen and NFL general counsel Jeff Pash. Those leaks eventually fueled questioning of Goodell at a press conference so aggressive that the league rushed a microphone to a reporter who hopefully would change the subject.
The Gruden emails didn’t change the subject. They caused it to emerge. Congress didn’t start paying attention to the situation until the fuse lit by the Gruden leak triggered an explosion of criticism, along with the lingering belief that the league’s stubborn refusal to embrace transparency means that it’s hiding something huge.
It all traces to the Gruden emails. If those emails had never come to light, the WFT investigation never would have become the controversy that it continues to be.
The far better approach, from Gruden’s perspective, would be to argue that Goodell decided to force Gruden out because the emails include specific and profane insults directed at Goodell, and that Goodell specifically chose to delay bringing the matter to a head until the regular season began in order to create maximum harm to Gruden, forcing him to resign while otherwise coaching his team.
Basically, it was a case of revenge served cold that resulted in a red-hot kitchen for the league. But for the alleged effort by Goodell to rid the NFL of Gruden, the league wouldn’t be dealing with relentless public and Congressional pressure to disclose more information about the WFT investigation.
That’s what Gruden should be arguing, because the leaks didn’t put out the fire. They started it.