Race-baiters, ruthless activists and cancel culture bullies are lurking and waiting to pounce on any public figure whose public statements (or revealed private ones) can sustain accusations of racism. Two recent examples from the world of sports help define when such comments are signature significance for an individual who is racially biased, and when they should be excused with little more than a raised eyebrow.
Over the Line: The NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden sent an email in 2011 came that attacked NFL Player’s Association head DeMaurice Smith, an African-American, by writing to Bruce Allen, who was the GM of the Washington Football Club, then called “The Redskins,” “Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin tires.”
Nice. At least Gruden recognized what he would be facing once the Wall Street Journal reported on his leaked email, and shot out an apology, though not a credible one. He said he was “really sorry” and suggested that it was all a big misunderstanding. You see, Gruden refers to liars as “rubber lips.” Sure he does. You hear that phrase all the time in reference to Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Andrew Cuomo, and James Comey. Rubber lips! Makes perfect sense. “I don’t think he’s dumb,” Gruden protested to the Journal. “I don’t think he’s a liar. I don’t have a racial bone in my body, and I’ve proven that for 58 years.”
I’m not sure what a “racial bone” is, but I assume he means that he isn’t racially biased and has proved it by his conduct. As we have discussed on Ethics Alarms often, racist beliefs and racially biased conduct are distinct in many ways, and one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. One distinction is that racist beliefs are legal, and if an individual is adept at recognizing that bias for what it is and not letting it govern his or her conduct, it isn’t unethical. Maybe Gruden hasn’t engaged in obviously racist or bigoted conduct in his life, but color me skeptical. A man claiming that that he isn’t racially biased who uses an ad hominem insult referring to a black man’s lips has as much credibility as that same man saying that he referred to someone as “Dumboriss” but doesn’t think he’s dumb. Ironically, Gruden’s excuse marks him as dumb and a liar who can’t keep his dishonest excuses straight. “I wasn’t making a racist comment when I said his lips looked like black inflated tires, I just use ‘rubber lips’ to mean liar, but…but.. I don’t believe he’s a liar either!” is the epitome of trying to dig one’s way out of a hole.
There is some mitigation here: it’s a ten-year-old email, and whoever anonymously leaked it—Allen?— is despicable for doing so secretly, and also for apparently holding on to a potentially embarrassing private message in case he decided later to destroy Gruden’s reputation and career if that ever became advantageous. It doesn’t make the email any less damaging, however. If Gruden had responded to it “coming to light” by credibly explaining how he had evolved in his attitudes and worked hard to understand and eliminate his racial prejudice over the past decade, he might have had a defense. Instead, he went with the ridiculous “rubber lips” lie.
His team ownership issued a statement: “The content of an email regarding DeMaurice Smith from Jon Gruden when he worked at ESPN 10 years ago is disturbing and now what the Raiders stand for,” owner Mark Davis said in a statement. “We were first made aware of the email late yesterday by a reporter and are reviewing it along with other materials provided to us today by the NFL.”
I think Gruden is toast, and deserves to be.
Addendum: Just to be sure, I checked to see if anyone but Gruden uses the term “rubber lips” to denote a liar. No. According to Urban Dictionary “rubber lips’ is when you: “Accidentally mangle the pronunciation of a word due to lingual clumsiness. This happens when you stumble over a word you can usually pronounce, or when you find a specific combination of sounds you simply cannot make yourself pronounce.”
Behind the Line: MLB Network broadcaster and former star pitcher Jim Kaat was discussing Chicago White Sox infielder Yoan Moncada yesterday during the first inning of the AL Division Series game between the Astros and White Sox. Buck Showalter, most recently the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, was praising Moncada, who is Cuban. “After the first time I saw him in the big leagues, I looked around the dugout, like, ‘Do we have one of those?'” said Showalter. Kaat quickly replied, “Get a 40-acre field full of them!”
Oopsie! Four innings later, Kaat, who is 82, apologized for the slavery reference. “Earlier in the game when Yoan Moncada was at the plate, in an attempt to compliment the great player that he is, I used a poor choice of words that resulted in an insensitive and hurtful remark,” he said. “And I’m sorry for that.”
The apology was straightforward and fine (and he didn’t say, “I always use ’40 acres’ because my grandfather had a ranch that size where he kept all sorts of wonderful things!), but I fear it will not be good enough to save Kaat, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt. (Showalter’s innocent but clumsy “Do we have one of those?” may also get him in trouble. )In addition to making no sense in the context of the exchange, this is the kind of spontaneous gaffe that anyone who has to speak extemporaneously for a living (like talk show hosts, politicians, teachers and, well, me) will inevitably commit.