The NFL took an L in a Nevada courtroom yesterday when a judge dismissed two motions aimed at avoiding a jury trial in Jon Gruden’s “tortious interference” lawsuit against the league.
Judge Nancy L. Allf tossed out the league’s motions asking for the case to be dismissed entirely and if not, for it to be forced into arbitration—with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in charge of the proceedings, ESPN reported. The league had argued that Gruden’s employment contract required any claims to go to arbitration instead of a trial. That mirrors an argument the NFL used in its defense against a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by current Pittsburgh Steelers assistant coach Brian Flores and two other current and former Black coaches. The NFL says it will appeal.
The tactic highlights how much the league might fear the potential of its dirty laundry over race being aired in court. While considered the nation’s most popular and successful sports enterprise, the NFL can’t shake the specter of scandals about race, sexual assault and other misconduct, from its de facto ban of quarterback Colin Kaepernick to the ineffectiveness of its “Rooney Rule” on minority coaching hires, to the Flores class action suit, which argues that in practice, that rule is a sham. The NFL is also facing controversy over the Cleveland Browns franchise signing quarterback Deshaun Watson, accused of sexual assault and harassment in 22 civil lawsuits, to a $230 million deal, the heaviest guaranteed bag in the league’s history.
Trials in either the Gruden lawsuit or the Flores case—both of which involve texts, emails and potentially other other evidence of racism in the league’s executive ranks—risk further pulling back the curtain on how race colors operations and decision-making at the highest levels in a sport where 31 out of 32 team owners, as well as most head coaches, are white, while 70 percent of players are Black. In that regard, the league may view settlement as more advantageous than trials, assuming judges shut down the arbitration argument and the plaintiffs in either case are willing to settle.
Gruden’s lawsuit could be especially messy for the NFL because not only does it involve evidence of ugly racism and homophobia from one of the league’s former marquee coaches, it’s also tied to another scandal that has led to a federal investigation of the Washington Commanders franchise.
A New York Times analysis described how Gruden caught strays from the NFL’s Washington investigation this way:
A scorched-earth dispute has played out over the last year, with damning information and accusations of wrongdoing weaponized by those involved. Gruden’s high-profile football career, which made him a wealthy man and an avatar of the sport itself, meant that his misdeeds became leverage in a fight that wasn’t even directly about him.
Gruden resigned as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders last October, three years into a 10-year, $100 million contract, after a trove of his emails including racist and homophobic language about NFL players, referees and even commissioner Roger Goodell himself, was leaked to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The emails had been sent to a group of NFL and other business executives while Gruden worked as an on-air analyst for ESPN between 2009 and 2018. Gruden’s lawsuit, filed last November, alleges that Goodell and the league leaked the emails in an effort to force him out of the sport.
The emails came to light as part of the NFL’s investigation into allegations of a toxic workplace culture inside the Washington squad. Gruden’s lawsuit alleges that the league’s independent investigator reviewed some 650,000 emails but only Gruden’s were leaked, even though he was never the subject of the probe. “There is no explanation or justification for why Gruden’s emails were the only ones made public...,” the lawsuit reads, also claiming that in addition to his lost coaching career, Gruden lost deals with show company Skechers, his appearance in the popular Madden 2022 video game and potentially other future opportunities.
The NFL ultimately fined the Commanders $10 million and owner Daniel Snyder relinquished day-to-day control to his wife, Tanya Snyder.
But the House Oversight Committee launched its own investigation and last month referred new information about potential financial improprieties by the team to the Federal Trade Commission. There are reports that some NFL owners are discussing kicking Snyder out of the league altogether but Goodell said this week that he hasn’t heard that at the league’s spring meetings in Atlanta.