After punishing ugly words, do we then go after silence?

by | Oct 17, 2021 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Tanks rarely back up. They don’t have to. Whatever is in front of them they can crush and roll over. 

But tanks are not human beings. They don’t have to think about what they’re doing. We do. Or we should.

Which brings us to the issue of emails — some 650,000 emails in particular. That’s how many messages the NFL recently pored through while investigating the Washington Football Team, one of its 32 franchises.

The reason behind such a deep dive? Charges of misconduct in the front office, particularly toward female employees.

That investigation ended over the summer. For now, the NFL has indicated there will be no further action against the WFT, beyond a $10 million fine of owner Daniel Snyder, some changes in his operating structure, and a harsh rebuke.

But the story doesn’t end there. In fact, it only begins. Because, in that mountain of emails, the NFL also discovered correspondence between Washington’s then-general manager, Bruce Allen, and Jon Gruden, who was working for ESPN as an analyst on “Monday Night Football.”

Some of those emails went back 10 years. Some were as recent as 2018.

Gruden’s emails reportedly revealed misogynistic and anti-gay comments, vulgar insults of the commissioner and other NFL personnel, photos of semi-naked women, and a racist remark about the lip size of DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association and a Black man.

And while Gruden was never under investigation, nor did he ever work for the Washington franchise, somehow those emails were leaked. No one says who. No one says why. But as soon as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal made then public, Gruden resigned from his job as coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. His football career is almost certainly over.

Now, that was the proper thing to happen. It was also the only thing that could happen. Gruden may have been collateral damage, but he revealed himself in those emails. And in today’s world, an NFL coach simply cannot continue with so many public stains of intolerance.

But now that Gruden is gone, some folks are calling for the rest of those 650,000 emails to be released and read, and are demanding to know who the recipients were and how they reacted.

Or if they reacted at all.

Is silence golden or an act of complicity?

This raises a crucial question in the age of cancel culture. How liable are you for the inappropriate comments of others?

An ESPN columnist recently suggested “the NFL should round up the recipients of Gruden’s rants and out them as well.” He wrote that people like Gruden need an audience, and that audience becomes “enablers’’ to people like him. If those enablers are in positions of power, the columnist suggested, then they are likely to be as intolerant in their actions as Gruden apparently was. Therefore, he concluded, we need to “flush them out.”

Well. Before we roll the tank down that road, let’s take a moment to think about our own behavior. Have you ever received an inappropriate email from someone you know? An off-color joke from your college buddy? A retweeted meme? A vulgar insult of someone in the office? Did you immediately respond “This is wrong, bigoted, and demeaning — and I’m reporting you to your bosses”?

Chances are you didn’t. Does that make you the same as the person who sent it? What if you only mildly rebuffed the message with “You shouldn’t send emails like this.” Does that mean you only mildly care about things like racism, sexism or homophobia? What if you’re at a rally and some people start yelling over-the-line insults? Can we assume you agree with whatever they are chanting?

Some people simply ignore stupidity. They deem it unworthy of a response. I was once at a party where a person who didn’t know my religion used an insulting stereotype about it in talking to a group. I dismissed the man as ignorant and had nothing more to do with him. But I didn’t shout him down in front of everyone. Nor did I condemn the others who may have felt just as silently uncomfortable. Were we all guilty of his sin?

We are already too quick to judge people by the dumbest thing they say. Should we now move to judging people by the dumbest thing they don’t respond to?

Where do we draw the line?

I understand the righteous anger that suggests any insulting comment that doesn’t meet swift punishment is a miscarriage of justice. We are living in that age right now. It’s the reason why adults lose jobs for tweets they sent in high school.

But I also understand the Biblical idea of “he who is without sin” casting the first stone. And I wonder how well those who scream for transparency would hold up under the same looking glass.

If digital messages are the ultimate measure of character — and how you respond or don’t respond to them just as damning — should we suggest that all NFL front offices make their emails public, right now, so we can root out the intolerant among them?

If we do that, how about the players? Should all cull their text messages — even the ones that might privately insult their coach, fellow players, or league executives — to see if they are harboring attitudes of intolerance?

And if we, the media, demand all that, should we not then be required to open up our own correspondence? After all, we have great power just as team execs do. If we are operating with inappropriate comments in our inbox, who are we to rule on the fate of others?

You see how quickly this accelerates. Although the NFL declared on Friday that there is nothing more to see in the trove of emails, already several people not remotely employed by the Washington Football Team have had to answer for items found in Allen’s correspondence. These included an ESPN reporter and the NFL’s general counsel.

If all 650,000 messages are eventually sliced and diced, I’m sure there will be more. Especially if how people didn’t respond is the limbo stick of guilt.

In the digital age, where words never die, we all live in bits and pieces — on iPhones, computers, Facebook posts and voicemails. It’s tempting to think that we can sum up a person by simply assembling the bytes.

But it takes years to truly know someone. It takes even longer to understand their pauses and hesitancies. We’ve already rolled the tank over any notion of private conversation in this world. Do we really want to keep going until silence itself is a fireable offense?

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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