The NFL denies leaking offensive Jon Gruden emails, but it definitely benefited from them becoming public

The NFL says it played no role in the leaking of the offensive emails that culminated in Jon Gruden stepping down as head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. The question now is who did and whether the violation of a confidential investigative process could open the door to some future legal ramifications for the league.

Two sources familiar with the NFL’s investigation of the Washington Football Team — which ultimately churned up derogatory emails between Gruden and former franchise president Bruce Allen — said a sizable number of individuals could have accessed the materials that were apparently turned over to the Wall Street Journal and New York Times last week. Among them? A handful of lawyers who were looped into the process while representing the NFL and Washington franchise during the investigation, a limited number of executives in both the league and team offices, Washington owner Dan Snyder, forensics auditors who extracted the emails, attorney Beth Wilkinson (who led the investigation) and potentially any employees with access to sensitive server data inside the Washington franchise.

And last but not least, Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen.

However, both sources dispelled at least one notion that has floated around since the existence of the emails was first discovered: That someone from the NFL Players Association or executive director DeMaurice Smith was inside the chain of custody for the materials and had a hand in leaking them to reporters. The first of Gruden’s emails, which contained a racial trope directed at Smith, was reported by the Wall Street Journal on the same day the head of the union faced a vote for reaffirmation as executive director. While that timing appeared curious, the email disparaging Smith turned out to merely be the first in a much broader leak that eventually included the New York Times — which showcased Gruden making an array of disparaging remarks about individuals in the NFL and league office. Notably among them, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and a handful of owners.

While the content of the emails has clearly overridden the action of whoever leaked them, it doesn’t erase a looming reality the NFL now must contend with: A league-run investigation uncovered sensitive information about (at least) two high-ranking current or former employees — Gruden and Allen — then a breach occurred that exposed the material before the NFL’s own process of dealing with it had concluded. Unless, of course, the league itself was part of the process of leaking the emails (which it has denied).

What places the NFL in the spotlight — beyond that this was the league’s investigation — is that it corresponded with Raiders owner Mark Davis about Gruden’s emails and then anticipated some type of action by the franchise. On the same day Gruden’s email surfaced about Smith, the league advanced other Gruden emails to Raiders ownership. The result was Davis having a meeting with Gruden and then taking no action. He subsequently coached against the Chicago Bears, sandwiching apologies for the Smith email around that game. By Monday morning, it didn’t appear Davis was going to act on the Smith email or that Gruden was going to voluntarily step aside.

What happened next raised a more significant focus on the NFL: At least part of the broader set of emails that were sent to the Raiders by the league ended up in the hands of the New York Times. And it was those emails and that report which ultimately spurred the reaction that the NFL had been looking for when it had initially reached out to Davis. The Raiders owner was put into a far more public and far more precarious situation of having to either attempt to defend Gruden and ride out the explosion that occurred on Monday, or he could fire him. Somewhere inside all of that, Gruden made the decision to step down.

The timeline of those events is suggestive that even if the NFL didn’t play a part in the leaks, the breaches may have accomplished what the league wanted to happen. And that — in theory — includes the re-affirmation of DeMaurice Smith as head of the player’s union, which was arguably a positive development for the NFL given that the league was able to broker continued labor peace with Smith at the controls, as well as hammer out vital COVID-19 protocols in 2020 that allowed a season of uninterrupted play.

If the leaked email to the Wall Street Journal helped Smith remain at the head of the union — and the NFL sees Smith as a leader it can work with peacefully — then it’s an arguable point that the leaked email about Smith helped the NFL as well. And if the league and commissioner Roger Goodell expected Davis to take action against Gruden in the wake of the other offensive emails that were uncovered, then the leaked emails to the New York Times ultimately stimulated the action of Gruden stepping down.

Regardless of how it happened, that’s a lot of outcomes breaking into a direction the NFL desired. But there is a downside here for the league that also raises the question of whether it would be so brazen as to undertake a set of maneuvers that risk unintended consequences. One of them being the significant amount of focus that has now once again landed on the league’s investigation into the Washington Football Team, which for all intents and purposes was dead and buried until this last week.

Now, because of these emails becoming public, there has been a renewed call from seemingly all corners (including the player’s union) for the NFL to do what it didn’t do this summer when it concluded the Washington probe. Specifically, release detailed findings about the investigation — which the league has declined to do — and expose what is in the rest of the 650,000 emails that were combed during the undertaking.

The NFL isn’t going to do either. There won’t be a detailed report about what evidence led the league to fine owner Dan Snyder $10 million and effectively remove him from day-to-day operations of the franchise. And the league has said it will not be releasing the content of that ocean of email correspondence — due to the confidentiality agreement that governed the investigation.

The same confidentiality that was just violated by some unknown entity in a way that appears to have benefitted the NFL. If that sounds like something that is going to linger for a long time with a whiff of skepticism, that’s because it is.

The one thing about Allen that most inside the league know is that he was a long-tenured and very well-connected executive inside the NFL. Someone with friendships and ties that went well beyond Gruden. He was also someone who was Snyder’s right-hand man throughout the period the NFL found Washington’s workplace environment to be so toxic toward women that it leveled an unprecedented fine and moved an owner away from the power center of his franchise.

All of this under the cover of an opaque investigation that is now better known for what it told us about Jon Gruden than what it showed us about owner Dan Snyder. There are no Snyder emails leaked in these dumps. Nothing about Allen’s dialogues with other executives inside and outside of his team. Nothing directly referencing any other owners, either.

Somehow, the biggest explosion in the Washington investigation engulfed a head coach who was never expected to be inside the blast radius — yet the key power broker leading the franchise, Snyder, moves on without even a single line of a single email making it out into the public.

At the very least, that’s curious. And at the very most, it might have been a surgically targeted operation that went exactly how it was supposed to: Breaking in a direction that benefitted the NFL, without sacrificing any of the people who have been protected by the league since the start of this.

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