We live in performative times, in which it can be difficult to tell whether someone is doing something out of genuine belief or just an understanding that it’s how their community expects them to act. Sometimes, our motives are mysterious to even ourselves. Are our words, actions, opinions and online posts about current events coming from a place of sincerity, or are we just following an ideological script, flattening all of our reactions to knee-jerk partisan instinct?
The investigation that ended the coaching career of Jon Gruden had nothing to do with him. The NFL was looking into numerous allegations about a culture of workplace misconduct and harassment at the Washington Football Team and its owner, Daniel Snyder. That investigation involved thousands of emails, which turned up Gruden’s offending communications, including racist, misogynistic and homophobic language. The Times said the emails were primarily sent to former Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen, who was fired in 2019. Gruden promptly resigned following the New York Times’ report on the emails.
This is where your reaction probably depends on what script you’re reading. It was not hard to find multiple examples of people decrying Gruden’s resignation as yet another sign of “cancel culture” rum amok. Conservative commentator Matt Walsh declared that “Gruden is getting canceled for thought crimes.” Steven Crowder also determined that Gruden was a victim of being “canceled by the left over emails.”
“I don’t know about you, but I like Gruden even more now!” declared the Right Scoop.
This is all predictable behavior. “Cancel culture” is a convenient bogeyman, a nebulous threat that’s vaguely defined enough to include everything from getting made fun of on Twitter for a few hours to going to jail for actual crimes. The term is usually meant to portray the people doing the “canceling” as a dramatic, overreactive mob.
But the actual details of this story show why “cancel culture” just isn’t a fair label for what happened to Gruden.
In multiple emails, he referred to league commissioner Roger Goodell as a gay slur and a “clueless anti football p***y.” He referred to former NFL player Michael Sam, who is gay, as another gay slur. He criticized the league for steps taken to reduce concussions among players, said that Eric Reid — who protested during the National Anthem — should be fired and, according to the Times, used “offensive language to describe some NFL owners, coaches and journalists who cover the league.”
Less well-covered but perhaps just as disturbing are allegations of photos included in the correspondence, including nude photos of NFL cheerleaders that were sent without their knowledge. The full report is not now public, and a group of former cheerleaders is demanding full transparency from the NFL as to what, exactly, was in those emails.
“The internet is forever,” as the saying goes. For as long as there has been an internet, there have been adults cautioning children about being careful with it. Moral society has always been aware that what goes around comes around. All the way back in ancient Rome, Paul told the the church in Galatians that “A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”
Now, however, a vocal group of people who decry cancel culture are determined to stir up a panic whenever this happens, arguing that people should not reap what they sow, that it’s not fair to reap what you sow and that people on their ideological team should be allowed to reap whatever they want, no matter how ugly the sowing.
But Gruden did bad things. He used cruel, dehumanizing language to describe his professional colleagues. Bad behavior brings negative consequences. It’s just cause and effect. There’s nothing novel about it.
Part of the reason it strikes us as a little odd in this case is we’re not used to seeing rich, powerful people face consequences for their actions. Society is set up in a way that often shields people in Gruden’s tax bracket from facing their own fallout. One of the perks of wealth and power is a large inner circle willing to look the other way. There is no such circle for, say, Crystal Mason, who is facing a life-altering five-year sentence because she didn’t know she was ineligible to vote. It is a facet of American society that the poor are expected to face the full legal weight of their actions as a way of teaching them a lesson, but the wealthy deserve are seen as deserving of endless second chances.
But none of that means that what we’re seeing here is the result of some woke mob going overboard. Such examples do exist, and have always existed, but that’s just not what happened here. This is simply an unusual case of society working more or less as it should. Someone did something wrong. Their wrongdoing was exposed. And they faced consequences.
Christians are in an interesting place when it comes to this moral arithmetic. Grace is the bedrock of Christian faith. The entire economy of mercy argues that forgiveness is freely available to all, regardless of what they’ve done. This is where a little nuance is required. It is not contradictory to believe that Gruden can be forgiven for what he’s done and that he’s unfit for a leadership position. In fact, it’s entirely reasonable.
In fact, it’s an example of grace. For many of us, the consequences of our worst actions were our best teachers — a turning point in our lives where we saw the error of our ways and decided to do better in the future. There’s no telling yet whether or not Gruden’s national humiliation and resignation will lead him to seek forgiveness from the people he hurt and chart a new, kinder course for his life, but we can pray that it does. Arguing that he should face no consequences at all is arguing that he should have been left doomed to the same cruel path he was on. And that would be a good deal worse than getting “canceled.”
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.