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NFL

Jon Gruden Was The Mark

12:15 PM EDT on July 12, 2023

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 10: Former NFL head coach John Gruden is seen in attendance during the UFC 282 event at T-Mobile Arena on December 10, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

The first thing you realize in engaging with the ESPN magnum opus of the ongoing war against the reign of Danny Snyder by Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham is that you're going to be reading it about four times before you figure who did what to whom and for what reason. And in the end, you actually don't get the "aha!" moment because of these three interlocking truths.

  1. If you aren't sure who the mark in the room is, it's definitely you.
  2. If you come at the king, you don't announce it ahead of time.
  3. The people who run the National Football League are never the mark and always the king.

The mark in this case is Jon Gruden, the once-and-defrocked coach of the Las Vegas Raiders who had team owner Mark Davis wrapped around his pinky and therefore misread the rooms outside his sight. He was in fact nothing more than just another employee of a particularly vulnerable member of the owners' club and found out what comes with making assumptions from that position: swift, administrative death.

In that context, this sentence jumps off the screen with its own malevolent laugh track: "In quiet moments, Gruden had designs on one day becoming commissioner."

Gruden and his litany of shortcomings wrapped in hubris isn't the tale here, but the punchline. When Sean Payton mocks Gruden for being the only coach to pay his fine for violating the league's COVID directives, you see the distance between Gruden's grandeur and his real position. By the third reading, you stop wondering who leaked what e-mail to what reporter and marvel at the dark tower of intertwined intrigues that actually gird the league structure. Gruden's lawsuit against Goodell and the NFL remains in play, and he even vows never to settle because he is taking on the mantle of the man who fired him in 2002, Al Davis, the first owner to take on the league and who in winning still lost. He too was a mark, as Gruden is now.

As Van Natta and Wickersham point out, Snyder hasn't sold his team yet. Goodell and his muscle, league attorney Jeff Pash, punch down well and intricately, and Gruden, like co-opted union head DeMaurice Smith before him, needed to be worked, but worked they have been. They are collateral damage for larger initiatives, and Snyder will be that as well soon enough. His mistake was threatening to embarrass the league with problematic emails of their own rather than just embarrassing it, and in telegraphing his punch he diminished it. He came at the kings but made the mistake of warning them.

And finally, no matter how many times you read the story to figure out the location of the bodies and the knives that protrude from them, the central truth remains the same: The NFL league office draws chalk outlines, it doesn't pose for them. Their own more insidious arrogances may undo them yet, but that day seems further off than ever, because hate them or hate them more, they're still better at protecting themselves than anything else.

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