“If he calls me ‘Rubber Lips’ one time, I’ll kill him.”
So said my best friend, D.J., at Sirena’s Pizza in Butler, Pennsylvania, where a group of my buddies and I worked in the mid-1980s. It remains my all-time favorite job.
D.J. was a popular kid — fun, often downright hilarious, entertaining, and also a tough guy who no one messed with. And yet, there was another guy in our orbit, Chris B. (last name withheld), a notorious wise-ass.
Chris was an insult master. Disparaging comments flowed from him with abundance and without provocation. All Chris needed was to merely enter a room. He would stride in, flash an impish grin, narrow his eyebrows, and begin spraying insults. To the close observer, Chris telegraphed his insults via an odd gesture of anxiously rubbing his hands on the sides of his pants, a sign of him warming up and readying to let loose.
Chris, who was very much D.J.’s physical unequal, had the strange and ill-advised temerity to call D.J. “Rubber Lips.” He did this with rising frequency. Chris was curiously putting himself at physical risk with this, but evidently couldn’t help himself. The worst wise-asses just can’t.
Why “Rubber Lips”? It was a term of derision, typically applied to someone who flaps his lips too much, i.e., a big talker, a gabber, an exaggerator, a B.S.-er, someone who’s mostly talk and no action. (See Scott McKay’s reference in his column last week.) To be fair, this didn’t accurately describe D.J., even as his words could be the life of the party. But to Chris, the insult master, this didn’t matter. The insult mattered. He had boldly taken to calling D.J. “Rubber Lips,” and now others were starting to do the same. It was catching on. D.J. had had enough. It was time to take a stand. This “rubber lips” junk had to stop, and D.J. had the physical wherewithal to end it decisively. The moment arrived.
“Here comes Chris,” said my co-worker, Rich Cammisa, as Chris sauntered into the pizza shop.
“If he calls me ‘Rubber Lips’ one time,” declared D.J. with a flash of anger, “I’ll kill him.”
Chris walked toward us, his face contorting into its characteristic position to deliver an insult, eyes slanting, devilish smile taking form, mouth curling, hands rubbing profusely on pants. Right on cue, he let it rip: “Hey, Paulie. Hey, Richie. Hey, Rubber Lips.”
D.J. pounced. He darted around the pizza counter, picked up Chris, and body-slammed him to the middle of the floor of the pizza shop. We all winced, hoping Chris wasn’t in need of an ambulance. A stunned Chris pleaded for mercy. Never again did he dub D.J. “Rubber Lips.”
I thought of this edifying moment from my days of misspent youth — one of endless moments of enlightenment from Butler, Pennsylvania, in the 1980s — when I heard that NFL football legend Jon Gruden had been fired for “racist, homophobic, sexist” language. Knowing Gruden’s tough-guy, no-nonsense, hard-nosed football persona, I wasn’t surprised by the statements described in the media as “sexist” and “homophobic.” Such characterizations were applied to words that Gruden used in private emails a decade ago to describe NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Charges of racism against Gruden, however, surprised me. They surprised everyone. Racist comments have never been associated with Gruden in public or private.
So, what were the racist comments? It appears to have been a single remark in a 2011 email, and no others. In a private email only now released by someone 10 years later, Gruden said of DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association: “Dumboriss Smith has lips the size of michellin tires.”
That is most definitely not a nice statement, but behold Gruden’s explanation:
I know at that time the Collective Bargaining Agreement was changing, there was a lockout going on or the threat of a lockout, if I can remember. I probably looked at De as the villain. And I was really upset. I was really upset that there was going to be a lockout. I felt that Gene Upshaw would never have allowed that to happen.
I didn’t feel like we were getting the truth. I refer to guys when I see them lying —and I can tell they’re lying — I refer to them as “rubber lips.” I went too far calling him the Michelin lips. I never had a blade of racism in me. I was just pissed and used a terrible way to insult a guy.
Gruden’s explanation obviously struck me, given my old familiarity with the phrase “rubber lips.” I know exactly what that meant. Witness Chris and D.J.
For the record, D.J. was white. Sure, calling someone “Rubber Lips” is a definite insult, as D.J. showed by converting the floor of Sirena’s Pizza into a WWF mat. But it is not a racial slur. And yet, Google what Gruden said and you’ll see that nearly every media source immediately reported it as a “racial trope.” (Don’t be surprised if Google and other sources suddenly start defining it as a “racial trope,” even as they did not before. That’s how it goes with Big Tech nowadays.)
In my day, we knew what “Rubber Lips” conveyed. It had nothing to do with race. Gruden is insisting the same, albeit to deaf ears.
“All I can say is I’m not a racist,” pleads Gruden. “I can’t tell you how sick I am. I apologize again to De Smith. But I feel good about who I am and what I’ve done my entire life. I apologize again for the insensitive remarks. I had no racial intentions with those remarks at all.” He added: “I know I don’t have an ounce of racism in me. I’m a guy who takes pride in leading people together and I’ll continue to do that for the rest of my life. And again, I apologize to De Smith and anybody out there that I have offended.”
The apologies are not being accepted. Critics of Gruden refuse to believe him or (more likely) are afraid to publicly defend him. Even as they concede that Gruden has no other statements in his background that ever made anyone think he’s a racist. His colleagues, including his longtime partner on Monday Night Football, Mike Tirico, who is black, insist they’ve never heard anything racially insensitive from Gruden.
“I should weigh in a little bit here because I was with Jon at that time, seven years as my partner on Monday Night Football,” said Tirico. “I probably know Jon better than anyone in the league on a personal level. My experience kind of parallels Tim Brown, who played for Jon and is a Hall of Fame receiver. He said he never experienced or saw anything that would say Jon was racist in any way. That is exactly the experience I had in seven years of traveling, three days together on the road every week.”
Also defending Gruden is NFL great Tony Dungy, a class act and a devoutly Christian man of grace and decency. “He said it wasn’t racially motivated,” said Dungy, who’s likewise black. “I have to believe him. I think this was an incident that was 10 years ago. He apologized. I think we need to accept that apology and move on.”
For these honest assessments, Dungy and Tirico have been blasted in the press and in the sewage system of social media.
Personally, I’ve never met Gruden, but I know people who have worked with him. They never encountered anything racially offensive from the man. They describe him in ways I describe my friend D.J.: talkative, candid, outspoken, entertaining.
Perhaps further adding credibility to this episode are the other statements from Gruden disassociated from race, which he has not denied. He used language questioning the masculinity of Roger Goodell. In truth, no one has trouble picturing Jon Gruden saying that. Some football coaches are like drill sergeants. They talk this way. They certainly did in pre-PC times. In Butler, we had a gym teacher, a legendary football coach, who started class lining us up military-like and barking out our names during roll call. One day he shouted, “Okay, ladies. Dodge ball! Today we’re going to separate the men from the [insert Gruden invective]!” He then left the room as combat ensued.
And yes, dear snowflake, he talked this way. Many of them did, boys and girls — back in the days before the sissies of cancel culture, in the name of “diversity,” forced everyone into conformity.
Gruden smacks of that type. But as for the racial language, it goes against Gruden’s grain totally.
It’s crucial to recognize that men like Jon Gruden have spent their whole lives not merely coaching young black men but guiding them, mentoring them, molding them, and often becoming father figures to many of them. Hundreds if not thousands of them. How many critics biting at Gruden’s ankles have mentored even one young black man? Gruden has walked the walk. It’s almost inconceivable that a human being so fully dedicated to young men in this way could be at heart a racist. When Jon Gruden says there’s not a racist bone in his body, it’s hard not to believe him or at least extend the man a bit of charity.
And besides, this alleged “racial trope” would not be evidence of racism because, as I’ve laid out here, the “rubber lips” insult is not a racial insult. It’s a phrase that people have used for a long time.
In fact, the accusation that this is a racial trope ought to call into question the hearts and minds of the accusers. Why do they assume this is an insult tailored at black men? Who ever said that? What makes them think such a thing? Where are their hearts and minds? I see this so often from liberals: they project onto others what they are thinking or feeling.
Alas, why this matters is crucial: A man’s character, reputation, and life’s work is now being besmirched, erased. It is this alleged “racial trope” (not the other Gruden statements) that’s getting Gruden not only fired but blacklisted, canceled. A systematic purge of Jon Gruden’s good name is now underway; they will remove his name from tributes, walls, buildings.
“Are you now or have you ever known Jon Gruden?”
Unless there are other statements out there from Gruden, remarks more directly in line with indisputable racist slurs and not defensible, then I don’t see how you can’t take the man’s word here. “Rubber lips” is an old phrase of insult with no racial undertones.
Just ask D.J. and Chris.