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NFL moves to dismiss case brought by disgraced coach Jon Gruden over offensive emails

Jon Gruden, pictured last October during his final game as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders before his resignation over offensive emails he wrote as a broadcaster at ESPN.
Ethan Miller
Getty Images
Jon Gruden, pictured last October during his final game as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders before his resignation over offensive emails he wrote as a broadcaster at ESPN.

The battle between the National Football League and Jon Gruden, the former coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, has escalated after the league responded for the first time to the lawsuit filed by Gruden after he resigned last year.

The lawsuit stems from a pair of damaging reports in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times published last October, which revealed that Gruden regularly used offensive language in emails sent over a period of seven years while he was employed as a broadcaster for ESPN, beginning in 2010.

In the emails, Gruden used homophobic and sexist language. He criticized the league for trying to reduce concussions; he complained about a player who participated in the national anthem protests; he shared photos of topless women; and he used racist tropes to criticize the head of the NFL Players Association, a Black man. He sent the messages to multiple people, including Bruce Allen, then the president of the Washington Football Team.

Gruden says the NFL intentionally leaked his emails

In his lawsuit, Gruden did not dispute the legitimacy of the emails.

Instead, he has accused the NFL of purposefully leaking the emails as part of a "malicious and orchestrated campaign" – led by Commissioner Roger Goodell himself – aimed at forcing Gruden to resign as "a distraction from the controversy" over workplace misconduct at the Washington Football Team.

The league responded in a pair of new court filings Tuesday, dismissing the lawsuit as a "made-up conspiracy theory" and accusing Gruden of "painting himself as the victim in a fictional story."

It denied that the NFL was the source of the leak, saying that the emails had been obtained by the media "through no fault" of the league.

"The release of Gruden's emails was unequivocally against the NFL's best interests," the motion states, saying that the offensive content "stood in stark contrast" with the league's self-described efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

Gruden, the one-time wunderkind coach for Oakland and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before he joined ESPN, returned to coach the Raiders in 2018. His contract was set to run through the 2027 season, but he resigned in October after the emails were publicized.

The emails surfaced during a separate investigation into sexual harassment

His emails fell into the league's hands during an unrelated investigation into workplace misconduct at the Washington Football Team. That investigation was prompted by a series of explosive Washington Post reports about sexual harassment experienced by female team employees and mistreatment of the team's cheerleaders.

After the investigation, the league fined the Washington Football Team $10 million.

Remarkably little has been made public about the findings of the investigation, which was conducted by an outside law firm. None of the 600,000-some emails reviewed were released to the public.

"We haven't seen anything. We haven't heard anything. There hasn't been any information communicated to us," said Lisa Banks, a lawyer representing more than 40 former team employees, in an interview with NPR in October. "Effectively, this whole thing was swept under the rug, and my clients feel like they were duped."

The only person to lose their job as a result of the NFL's investigation, it turned out, was Gruden. He filed suit in November, a month after his resignation.

In its motion to dismiss, the NFL made several legal arguments aimed at insulating itself from Gruden's claims, including that the league had no duty to keep Gruden's emails from becoming public.

The league also moved to send the case to arbitration, arguing that Gruden was bound by his contract to resolve any disputes related to "conduct detrimental to the league" via arbitration instead of a public lawsuit.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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