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A Letter to Youth & High School Coaches: The Gruden Incident

by Ruben Nieves


Dear Youth Sports Coach,

Last week in the news, I read some of the emails that Jon Gruden wrote many years ago to others involved in the NFL that led to his recent resignation as Head Coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. I’m sure you’ve seen them too.

The choice of words, messages, and mindset expressed in those emails were offensive and hurtful.  This was not about an isolated email, but rather a pattern of behavior over time.  The emails revealed a lot about Gruden - who he is and what he communicates when he thinks "no one is watching."

It struck me how the content of those emails "flies in the face" of the principles espoused by Positive Coaching Alliance, starting with the responsibility of a coach to teach the right life lessons through sports.  As coaches, we are teaching life lessons all the time, whether we intend to or not, and in this case, Gruden taught many people the wrong type of "life lessons"- his lessons were ones that divide, perpetuate hate, bully, and discriminate. There is no place for those life lessons in sports...or anywhere else.

At PCA, we encourage athletes to strive to be a Triple-Impact Competitor®, one who make themselves better, makes teammates better, and makes the game better. Making the game better also applies to coaches. We also look for what we call a 'Double-Goal Coach®', one who strives to win but also pursues the second, more important goal of teaching life lessons through sports.

Perhaps even more important for this example, we put a high value on “Honoring the Game” - using the acronym ROOTS - respect the rules, opponents, officials, teammates, and self. Gruden's emails and the ideas contained in them do not honor the game and they do not make the game better. His behavior did not model for his players, fans or community respecting any of the above components of sports.

To be a positive coach, one must model the behavior you want to see in your team members.  If you want your athletes to make the game better, if you want them to Honor The Game, if you want them to respect the ROOTS, then you must lead the way through your own actions.

All sports teams have a unique culture. PCA Founder, Jim Thompson, says that culture is "the way we do things here."  It's not a question of whether your team will have a culture, it's a question of what kind of culture you will have. Jon Gruden has been in a position to not only influence the culture of a team, but that of a team at the highest level- the NFL. So many kids look up to the NFL players and coaches as role models and they must do better and be more aware of the consequences of their actions - those in front of the camera and behind it.  

Thompson starts and ends his book The Power of Double-Goal Coaching by exploring "Your Legacy as a Coach."  At PCA, we encourage coaches at all levels to consider what they want their legacy to be.  What will you leave behind and how will you be remembered?  These emails and what they represent, unfortunately, will now be part of the legacy of Coach Jon Gruden. 

Coaches, we encourage you to use this example to engage, learn, and grow with your team.  This can be an action item or as encouragement /challenge for those reading.  

Talk to your team about:

  • The importance of respect...and respecting someone includes the language you use about them when they aren't present.
  • Bad outcomes always start somewhere, so consider checking some of the root causes.
  • Talk about the consequences of actions and words.
  • Discuss and model the behavior you want to see in your players.

As Director of Training, Ruben Nieves is responsible for overseeing the training and support of Positive Coaching Alliance trainers around the country. He coached collegiate volleyball for 18 years including stints as the Head Men's Coach at Stanford and the Head Women's Coach at Fresno State. Ruben was twice named NCAA Men's Volleyball Coach of the Year, in 1992 and 1997. He guided Stanford to the Cardinal's first men's volleyball NCAA championship in 1997.