You can’t safely be a jerk at work anymore — not even in private.
That’s what the National Football League head coach Jon Gruden learned the hard way, after years of his emails laced with racist, sexist and homophobic remarks made their way into news reports last week. Among other things, the coach, who is white, wrote while he was an analyst at ESPN that a Black union leader had lips like rubber tires. More revelations suggested Mr. Gruden wasn’t the only one in the leadership ranks of the N.F.L. engaging in virulent casual racism, as other emails emerged showing a senior official joking about Native Americans and mocking diversity.
Still, when Mr. Gruden resigned, there was backlash. On Twitter, the conservative blogger and podcast host Matt Walsh complained that Mr. Gruden is “getting canceled for thought crimes.” The conservative radio host Charlie Kirk echoed that sentiment, saying the coach had to resign “because he’s a white, Catholic, conservative male.” They speak for many Americans who feel that Mr. Gruden has become a kind of scapegoat in the rush to sanitize our discourse. And indeed, who hasn’t said something less than kind among friends or colleagues?
But Mr. Gruden and these other powerful men aren’t victims of cancel culture. On the contrary, for their entire careers, they have been beneficiaries of a different phenomenon, which permeates not only the N.F.L. but also many other institutions dominated by straight white men. Let’s call it OK Culture.
OK Culture is what allows the kind of noxious discourse in Mr. Gruden’s emails to continue for years. Here’s how it works: Do you have a sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic or fat-shaming thought? Are you smart enough to know you shouldn’t say it in public but want to say it anyway? Are you a powerful and successful person? If so, just make your mean remark or crass joke to a select group who hold similar views or at least wouldn’t dare challenge yours. Don’t worry. It’s OK!
Of course, when Mr. Gruden and others like him wrote or said some of the things that compromised their careers, they probably didn’t anticipate our world today. Communications don’t disappear anymore, no matter how much you might wish they would.
But this is no elegy for a man felled by changing social mores or new digital transparency. Instead, it’s a warning to the institutions that nurtured the obnoxious behavior. They should change because it’s the right thing to do. But also, they must change to survive.
Many have remarked that Mr. Gruden is not an outlier at the N.F.L. As the defensive end Ryan Russell, who is Black and came out in 2019 as bisexual, wrote last week, “The culture runs deeper than just one head coach: Gruden’s emails are not just the hateful rant of a bigot, but a written history of the vast mistreatment of marginalized voices throughout the N.F.L.”
A common aspect of OK Culture is the tendency to look the other way when someone is professionally excellent but personally awful. The discourse in Mr. Gruden’s correspondence veered into territory that was obviously gross, including sharing photos of cheerleaders and other women wearing only bikini bottoms. Still, for years, Mr. Gruden remained OK. In his arena, he was among the best. He wound up signing a 10-year contract worth $100 million when the Raiders hired him in 2018, making him one of the highest-paid coaches in the league. The sycophants surrounding him helped him dig his own grave.
Scoff all you want at sensitivity trainings and admonitions to consider whether you’d want to see something published in The New York Times before pressing send. But it’s when those standards fail that the court of public opinion looms.
Mr. Gruden is out. But the N.F.L. can still work to save itself.
Curbing OK Culture isn’t some sort of “Kumbaya” altruism. It is a strategy for survival. A 2018 analysis of internal whistle-blower hotline reports at public U.S. companies showed that encouraging employees to speak up, and listening to them when they do, is crucial to curbing bad behavior and toxic culture, reported Harvard Business Review. When employees recognize behaviors minor and major as not OK — and report them — companies face fewer lawsuits and pay out less in settlements. (But research has found that the taboos around telling on your colleagues are strong; only an estimated 1.4 percent of employees do it.)
Instead of listening to whistle-blowers, organizations are often tempted to listen to the siren song of their own success, in some cases enabling real harm. The examples ricochet through recent sports history. In American gymnastics, the doctor Larry Nassar was able to sexually abuse more than 150 of the country’s most talented young female athletes over decades. At Nike, the track coach Alberto Salazar enjoyed godlike status and the support and funding of the apparel company, even after he was accused of abusing athletes and suspended for doping-related misconduct. The National Women’s Soccer League is facing allegations that coaches sexually and emotionally abused or harassed female players for years, after executives did not take reports of abuses seriously enough.
There are plenty of cautionary tales from outside sports, too: Officials at several hospitals have been accused of glossing over reports that the popular doctor Ricardo Cruciani had sexually abused patients. Then there’s the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, Enron, Theranos, Hollywood. At some point in each of these slow-motion disasters, a person (or many people) pushed the boundaries of what’s ethical, decent or legal — and learned their behavior was OK. They rose. It got worse.
I suspect that many of those still mad about Mr. Gruden’s firing are worked up not just on his behalf. They’re horrified by his punishment because they fear it themselves. They may be able to recall or imagine themselves thinking, and saying, similar things in private conversation. So they shrug off Mr. Gruden’s offense with the well-worn excuse of locker room banter and cry “cancel culture.”
But that helps nothing. It’s time to stop litigating whether these punishments are fair and to start thinking more deeply about why the behavior they punish seemed OK in the first place. And if others who act like Mr. Gruden are scared, perhaps they should be. More important, they should change.