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Media Meltdowns

In Hindsight, Maybe These Two Guys Shouldn’t Have Defended Jon Gruden’s Character On National TV

Image via NBC

With the news of Jon Gruden’s resignation over old leaked emails which included him calling the NFL commissioner a gay slur, it’s worth going back to Sunday night, when the Las Vegas Raiders head coach had only, to the public’s knowledge, described the NFL Players Association president in a racist way. On the Sunday Night Football broadcast, Mike Tirico and Tony Dungy discussed Gruden’s gross email from 2011, and then defended him more fervently than he had defended himself in a postgame presser.

“I’m not gonna answer all these questions today,” Gruden said after the Raiders’ 20-9 loss to the Chicago Bears. “I think I’ve addressed it already. I can’t remember a lot of the things that transpired 10 or 12 years ago, but I stand here in front of everybody, apologizing. I know I don’t have an ounce of racism in me. I’m a guy who takes pride in leading people together, and I’ll continue to do that for the rest of my life. And again, I apologize to De Smith, and anybody that I have offended.”

Judging by Gruden’s tone in the clip, he sounded annoyed that he had to talk about this at all. During a national broadcast, Dungy and Tirico were willing to add artificial nuance to the football-brained coach.

“What Jon Gruden did in that email—definitely insensitive, definitely inappropriate, definitely immature,” Dungy said. “I thought he attacked the character of a man, but he apologized for it. He said it wasn’t racially motivated. I have to believe him. I think this was an incident that was 10 years ago. He apologized. I think we need to accept that apology and move on.”

“The 2011 timeline, that’s when Jon and I were calling Monday Night Football. We were partners for seven years and traveled the country together,” Tirico said. “As close personally with Jon, as probably anybody who I’ve been around the league, given the length of the relationship, I can echo what [former Raiders receiver] Tim Brown said in a SiriusXM satellite radio interview in the last 24 hours or so: I never saw or heard anything that you would say there was a racial tone to it in any way, from Jon over [the] time. That doesn’t mean that what was in the email was right. It was wrong. He has said as much, repeated that after the game. But that’s just personal observation, and trying to be candid with our audience.”

Those were their takeaways before the New York Times published a number of Gruden’s other emails in which he made homophobic and sexist remarks about Roger Goodell, Michael Sam, and Caitlyn Jenner to recipients that included his buddy, then-Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen. If Tony Dungy wanted to believe that remark on DeMaurice Smith’s lips (“Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin tires”) wasn’t racially motivated, he is free to accept that empty explanation. This morning, however, he reacted to the new batch of emails by saying that the Raiders were right to fire Gruden, but—surprise—the coach could still find redemption if he’s truly sorry. Gruden has barely cleared out his office, and yet Dungy’s already prepared to forgive. Then again, it’s not like he was ever particularly fond of Michael Sam.

Tirico was in a different spot than Dungy: He actually worked with Gruden in the booth at ESPN. There was no way around that fact, even though Gruden had returned to being a coach and falling within the coverage of SNF. Tirico is free to say that the coach did nothing racist in front of him, but now it’s clear that Gruden’s inappropriate behavior wasn’t limited to just racism, and Tirico’s not exactly the best judge of workplace conduct anyway.

In fairness, the SNF desk was in a bind here. The Gruden story presented a conflict of interest, but there was also no way they could’ve ignored the news completely. Still, it was pretty clear at the time that Gruden hadn’t sent just one awful message: ESPN’s Chris Mortensen had reported Sunday morning on the existence of more Gruden emails, just not the specific language used in them. Tirico and Dungy did not have to contribute an absolute endorsement of Gruden’s character and declare the matter settled, and they could have avoided sticking their necks out when there was very obviously a lot more to come. But the broadcast can get credit for one decision: It was wise to not have Drew Brees bring anything to the table here.

Update (4:19 p.m. ET): When contacted by Defector, NBC Sports sent along this comment from Tirico: “The comments made Sunday on Football Night in America were specific to Jon Gruden’s email related to DeMaurice Smith and addressed my personal experiences with Jon regarding any racist actions or behaviors. As I said on air, his ‘comments are wrong.’ The content and nature of the subsequently released emails is deplorable, disappointing and express sentiments that have no place in our society.”