What a week. The thin veneer of snow on the tip of iceberg that is the email dump unearthed in Beth Wilkinson’s investigation of Dan Snyder and the Washington Football Team has been pierced, and, so far, Raiders’ coach Jon Gruden has lost his job, NFL General Counsel Jeff Pash is on the ropes, and we’ve discovered that Bruce Allen is an even more terrible human being than the most cynical of us suspected.
The team’s trainer is under investigation by the DEA and has been placed on leave. Reports have come out that, in February, the team attempted to pay off a couple of women who had grievances against the team in exchange for their silence.
If ever there were a week where Team President Jason Wright were going to be called upon to earn his paycheck, this was it. He’s responded by adopting the role of fireman.
In the common imagination, from our very earliest ages, we’re taught about a handful of core vocations fundamental to our experience as children, and to a functioning society: Bakers, teachers, doctors and nurses, policemen (and women), and firemen (and women). The latter two roles, in particular, hold a special place in our psyche, everyday heroes willing to put their lives on the line in order that we remain safe. That’s not the sort of “fireman” I’m referring to here.
No, Wright’s current incarnation is far more reminiscent of the firemen in Ray Bradbury’s dystopian tale, Fahrenheit 451. In Bradbury’s story, firemen are not the firefighters we think of in contemporary society, but instead fire starters, called out to set fire to banned books and printed intellectual material whose content might otherwise be threatening to the tyrannical powers that be.
He Didn’t Start the Fire
Wright’s role as a topsy turvy fireman was almost certainly necessitated by circumstances originally outside his control. The brushfire that started last week, as a few embers revealed wisps of smoke tying Jon Gruden to racially insensitive remarks about NFLPA union boss DeMaurice Smith.
Within a few days, what first appeared to be a decade-old gaffe that could probably be apologized away had spread out of control. Emails were now circulating that painted Gruden as a homophobe, an opponent of engaging women in refereeing games, and hostile to the social justice activism of players, among a variety of other offenses.
As the conflagration built, it came to light that the emails being leaked to the NY Times were, in fact, discovered as part of the aforementioned Wilkinson investigation, and that the league, and potentially, the leaker, had access to over 650,000 such missives from the Washington Football Team archives. Gruden’s emails had been part of a decade-long back-and-forth with disgraced former Team President Bruce Allen.
On Monday night, about midway through the Monday Night Football game, Gruden tendered his resignation, overcome by the overpowering smoke generated from his ill-advised correspondence with Brucifer.
I suspect that this is about the time Jason Wright began to get very concerned. With Gruden taken down, it took virtually no time at all for the calls to begin to release all of the emails. After all, if this small sliver of them were salacious and damning enough bring down an NFL coach in a few days, what did the other 649,941 emails have in them. Wright knows what those emails have in them, and he was - rightfully - worried.
All the metaphorical water in the world wouldn’t be sufficient to extinguish this public relations inferno right now, so Wright needed an alternative. This, after all, is a man with a University of Chicago MBA and training from McKinsey & Company, one of the foremost consulting companies in the world. This is just the sort of situation he had trained his entire professional life for.
Wildfires, like uncontained public rage about a decades-long toxic work culture, are largely unpredictable, and entirely capable of destroying everything in their path, provided sufficient time and fuel. Dousing them with retardants is fruitless, but managed properly, they can be starved of fuel.
In firefighting parlance, a “backfire” is a fire intentionally set to burn the fuel in front of a wildfire so that the larger blaze will have nothing to consume when it arrives. And this is just what fireman Wright has done.
Igniting the Backfire
With Gruden tossed aside, the outrage inferno growing, and the next game six days away, Wright needed to get creative to marshal a distraction. The Football Team was bracing itself for a beating at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs in a game that could, very credibly, be over by the end of the first quarter.
Left with little on-the-field action to discuss, the coverage crew would inevitably turn to mining the motherlode of organizational dysfunction blossoming in Washington, DC. No bueno. But what sort of distraction would do? It was going to take something big.
For many younger fans, those born after the Super Bowl years, Sean Taylor is the Washington Redskins, a larger than life archetypical safety who blew up opponents and was taken from us way too young. For older fans, it’s Saint Gibbs. For many younger ones, it’s Saint Taylor.
Wright is absolutely too smart and too aware for me to believe that announcing the retirement of Taylor’s jersey four days before it was planned to happen was a mistake. The team, led by Bruce Allen at the time, gave 5 weeks notice that London Fletcher was going to have his name placed in the Ring of Fame in 2019. Wright, himself, had just promoted the arrival of Coldplay at FedEx field in June 2022, nine months away, earlier in the week. This isn’t a man with a planning problem.
Wright knew full well that a backlash (backfire) would ensue when the event was perceived by the public as being mishandled, after all, that was by design. And it has. But the wildfire has, at least temporarily, been knocked off course, and the media inferno has turned its focus on fans upset about not being able to attend the game, the perceived slight to Taylor’s memory, and hand towels. Hardly a mention, at this point, of what damning declarations from, or about, Wright’s employer might be smoldering in those emails.
Will his distraction work, or will the cleansing fire finally reach Ashburn?
Do you believe that Jason Wright is a credible figure?
This poll is closed
The jury is still out.
I’d trust him with my dog.