I witnessed Barack Obama become the first black President of the United States of America. I saw Michael Sam become the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. I watched Carl Nassib become the first openly gay player to make an active NFL roster. I witnessed Sarah Thomas become the first female full-time NFL referee. I have also witnessed that we have a long way to go. It is also apparent that this problem is bigger than just Jon Gruden.
Perspective Is Everything
I grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois with a population of 7,000 people. The kind of place where everyone knows everything about each other. Yet, the things we know stay hidden just well enough. They were out in the open in reality, we just don’t discuss it.
Still, as I grew up during the Obama administration it was nearly impossible for me to understand the perspectives of anyone besides a white heterosexual man. Like many of my peers then and now, I held this idea that racism wasn’t really a “thing” anymore. Sure, in some obscure southern areas remnants still existed, but largely America was a melting pot where we all got along. I was wrong, I can admit that.
Nobody Is Perfect
Before I go any further, I want to state this; I am not by any means perfect. I am sure that at some point in my life I have said insensitive things that I regret. Likely most everyone has. The difference between being a child and an adult, especially in our new climate of understanding and awareness, however, is vast. I am 30 years old. I do not condone racist, sexist, or homophobic language. What I can tell you is that there are many family members and peers around me who see no real harm in these ideals and words. That is unfortunate and I distance myself from those individuals as much as I can.
Imperfection Is Okay, If You’re Willing To Grow
My high school mascot was the Comets. Our basketball team had a student section called the Cometkazes (A take on Japanese Kamikazes during World War II) and they had a blue (rather than red) Japanese flag on their white t-shirts. I never saw anything wrong with it.
For sporting events against our Rival (who most of us claimed was a racist town), we would have “Gangster” day where we all showed up to the game dressed in the most obnoxious versions of what we thought were black rappers in an attempt to annoy our rivals. I never saw a problem. I played a game as a young boy where one kid has the ball and everyone else tries to tackle them. The game was called “Smear the Queer.” I never had a problem with it.
I went to school in a place where, yes, I heard students and even teachers use racially motivated language. I knew that was wrong. So why didn’t I see all the other racist, homophobic, sexist things I saw no shame in and gladly participated in? Well, I was young and had no real perspective on life. Something that cannot be said about Jon Gruden or others like him.
The Bigger Issue
The bigger issue was that I never saw the impact of what I and others were saying or doing because frankly, it didn’t affect me. I’m not black, I’m not gay, and I’m not a woman or transgender. Because of this, I needed racism or homophobia to literally slap me in the face in order to call it for what it was. Meanwhile, I was missing everything else that gets relabeled as “just a joke” or “cancel culture” etc. That is a problem. Jon Gruden and this type of locker room talk prove we still have a long way to go.
It took going to college and meeting people of various ethnicities and cultures. I took a sociology course explaining how things like poverty and crime go hand in hand. It helped me understand how racist practices that were and still exist today create the environment that forces people into some of the stereotypes we come to believe in. Much of this conversation will be cast aside as a victim mentality or a product of their own culture. You’re wrong, just as I was wrong.
What it took for me to come to grips with my own family’s language, my own friend’s language, my community’s language, MY language, was for me to shut up. I asked questions and then I shut my mouth and I let my black friends, my gay friends, my female friends explain to me how they had been personally affected by racism, homophobia, or sexism. Instead of hiding behind my wall of “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” I listened.
Time Doesn’t Heal All Things, Actions Do
Now when I hear a phrase like “It was ten years ago” in an attempt to somehow absolve Jon Gruden and others I have to take a deep breath and calm myself before speaking. I am no better than you who have said this. We must realize this dismissal diminishes the voices of those truly affected by these transgressions. I was in your shoes once. Hell, I am still learning and growing myself in some regards.
I can understand the “ten years ago” argument if we are discussing a child. They haven’t had time to break free of their small towns, their family, or their community. Something we have to do in order to grow and learn. But when you are 25, 30, 48, 65, etc. you no longer deserve that excuse and trust, it is an excuse. Because if we put a statute of limitations on racism and homophobia, we are giving a pass to people as long as they can hide it just well enough.
If you find that any of this applies to you, past or present, just ask questions and listen. It isn’t our place to tell those affected how to feel or react. It isn’t our place to justify or absolve those using this language. Our job is to learn and grow and make sure that we continue to teach others that we do not condone this behavior.
Defensiveness Is Not An Acceptable Learning Strategy
The goal isn’t to ruin Jon Gruden’s life. It isn’t to cancel everyone who has ever said anything insensitive. The goal is growth and not just within ourselves but within our communities as a whole. It is no longer enough to just not be racist or homophobic. We must actively work against those ideals at every opportunity. I want more representation in the NFL and other sports.
I’m ashamed that it took anything more than Jon Gruden’s racist comments to remove him from the NFL. It says we are okay with a little racist behavior so long as we don’t go “too far” to hurt marginalized groups much as I saw with my school’s Cometkazes or “Gangster” day. It was never okay we were just all too willing to let it slide because “we had a black friend.” We hid it just well enough. Whatever it takes, whoever you need to talk to, whatever resources you need, let’s all do better and listen.