Urban Meyer, Jon Gruden, and Email Fiascos

Urban Meyer says he is not a bad guy. Jon Gruden says he is not a racist. But action reveals character—and the actions of these men speak volumes compared to their feeble words.

Man, do I miss my time on sports podcasts and sports talk radio.

I love talking sports to anyone who will listen. But more than that, I love talking about the intersection of faith, culture, and life that sports bring home to us. Over the last week, we have witnessed an unprecedented wreck at these crossroads.

In that time period, Urban Meyer added insult to injury in his thus far disastrous journey in the NFL, and Jon Gruden ended his mediocre return to the league. The events that led up to this tell us more than we want to know about the culture of football on all levels.

Combine this with recent events at a high school in Oklahoma, and we have a full-blown crisis at the crossroads of faith, culture, sports, and life.

Urban’s Faux Crusade

Urban Meyer’s moral high ground is built on two foundations: 1) he coached Tim Tebow; and 2) he openly proclaims his priorities “Faith, family, and football” in that particular order.

Saying something and living it are vastly different issues.

Meyer seemed to get in trouble for enjoying a lap dance in his own bar while his wife was nowhere to be found. This happened when he decided not to travel home with his epically bad 0-4 football team. Many trumpeted the idea that this is no big deal—and perhaps that would be true for a coach with a proven NFL track record.

It is a big deal, however, when you decide not to travel with your football team that is struggling on an epic level. It is also the result when football coaches decide to “cosplay as youth ministers” (quote from my buddy the sports journalist).

Urban Meyer has zero track record in the league. None of his players care a lick about his success in college. It is highly unlikely that they buy into the “Rah-rah” demeanor or religious rhetoric that made him a great college recruiter. He is speaking to grown men who know the difference between CoachSpeak and the real thing.

Maybe Meyer is “not a bad guy” as some people claim. But actions speak louder than words, and his track record displays a stunning lack of awareness of the world—and players—around him.

Meyer’s teams at the University of Florida tallied over 30 arrests. When one of his stars tried to gouge an opponent in the eye, Meyer did suspend him—for one quarter, against Vanderbilt. He hired a known domestic abuser at Ohio State. He hired a weightlifting coach in Jacksonville known for using racially abusive language.

And that’s only about half the list.

The Jags won’t fire Meyer (although I believe they’re dying to) because then they would have to pay him. Meyer won’t quit (although I believe he’s dying to) because he wants to keep getting paid. But whatever happens, it is extremely difficult to see this ending well for Jacksonville.

Some other college will come along and tag Meyer as their program savior. He can be that for a college team, ethics and values notwithstanding. But at some point, he needs to determine if he really means what he says or if that is just a line for the living room where he is speaking to the parents of a 5-star recruit.

If Meyer fails in the NFL, it is not because he allowed some young woman to dance in his lap without his wife present. It will be due to a level of arrogance that he can say one thing and do another without consideration for anyone around him.

Dear Jon…

Meyer is probably the one person who is happy about the Jon Gruden email dump last week. His dalliance at the bar is back page news at best compared to Gruden’s dumpster fire.

Urban Meyer reacts to Jon Gruden email scandal. (Thank you for the tip, James Pugh).

It started off with a horribly racist slur straight from a bad 1920s cartoon. This gave way to your typically lame explanation and apology from a man who foolishly thought this was the only email out there.

And then, round 2 brought the knockout punch.

Gruden’s email chains went on for years with racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobic rants against so many people in so many walks of the NFL. This included the League Commish, a man who indirectly writes Gruden’s paychecks. (And for the record, I will never be accused of defending Roger Goodell).

What is troubling about the situation is the number of people who defend Gruden at least to some degree. Former players and colleagues have said that they saw Jon Gruden as a good person, good coach, never heard him say these things and never viewed him doing anything racist.

That’s the point, isn’t it? Racist, sexist, misogynistic people are not necessarily wearing that on their sleeve. Klan members did not wear their hoods and Halloween robes to work during the 1950s because it was a secret society. Gruden may have the self-awareness that Meyer doesn’t–which means he is wise enough not to say it out loud.

But our true character is not always revealed in our public persona. Over and over in Christian circles, we point out the places where true character is revealed. Who we are = what we do when no one is looking. Our actions speak louder than words.

If these adages are true—and I believe they are—then we learned far more about Gruden when he hit “send” than we did while listening to him on Monday Night Football. His players and colleagues saw what he wanted them to see. The emails he sent under cover of darkness is the true reveal.

Jon Gruden can say he is not a racist, sexist, misogynistic homophobe. But the people he insulted for years would like to have a word. If we can speak hatefully towards people when we think our actions will not be revealed, then we have a level of hate in our hearts. And until that changes, our denials of the reality of our hearts are meaningless.

But Old Emails?

A final word about this involves the defense that Gruden said this 10 years ago. That is no longer a defense in a digital world.

This was not “cancel culture.” This was responding to the reality that a man revealed about himself through ongoing action.

For starters, Gruden and the rest of us better know that hitting “send” memorializes every word and action—for eternity. Even what you think is deleted can be found by someone. If he assumed these thoughts would remain hidden, that is on him.

12 years ago, I sent an email to a colleague with what I believed to be a harmless snide remark about a person associated with our church. It was not loaded with hateful language or slurs of any kind. It was not crude, but it was rude. And wrong.

That colleague kept the email and decided to show it to some people roughly two years later—including someone in that person’s family. It then went to the Personnel Committee, the pastor, etc.

I owned it. I ate it. While it did not cost me my job, it cost me a lot of respect among people whose respect I wanted to keep. And I deserved every bit of it—while committing myself to never make another comment like that via email. More than that, I decided to work on my attitude towards others (and that remains a work in progress, I am afraid).  

The first revealed comment about an African-American happened 10 years ago. But the pattern continued up through 2018, when Gruden was rehired as a head coach. As bad as that was, it pales in comparison to his willingness to keep this as his default demeanor for at least seven years.

Let us not forget that these emails went out to league offices and employees. These men seemed to have no issues disparaging other league employees, such as women referees, on a regular basis. No one called him out on it—and if they did, he ignored it.

This is not a one-time incident by a person who has learned and grown. While Tony Dungy was correct in pointing out Gruden’s immaturity, that is not an excuse for a man of his age and position. These emails told us exactly who Jon Gruden is, how he thinks, and what he does.

Whatever you think of Jon Gruden and his scandal, he has a lot of room for growth—as do we all. Hopefully he will decide to learn and grow into the person that some people think he is and that he claims to be.

How Gruden’s story goes from here is largely up to him. Perhaps we can join him in living up to the challenge of being the good people publicly and privately, in both word and deed. Our decision to strive for that allows us to build the Christ-centered character that the Lord expects of us.

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