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News brief: NPR Poll on delta surge, Jon Gruden's emails, espionage case

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

We're 18 months into dealing with this pandemic. And if you're feeling worn out and off balance, you're not alone.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nope. A new poll finds that half of all households have at least one person at home who has had serious problems with depression, anxiety, stress or sleep in recent months. Bills are piling up, so is the schoolwork. The poll out this morning is from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

MARTINEZ: And with us here to tell us about the findings is NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin. Now, Americans have fallen behind. Selena, tell us how this comes through in that poll.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: In so many ways - Americans are behind on rent, on their credit cards. Kids have fallen behind in school. Patients haven't been able to get health care; 1 in 5 households have recently had to delay medical treatment. And Americans are on edge as well. A lot of people feel personally fearful, especially Asian Americans. One in four Asian American households feared being threatened or attacked in the last few months. And the numbers were almost as high for Black and Native American households.

MARTINEZ: Wow. And this poll is a follow-up - right? - to the one that was done about the same time last year.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, that's exactly right. So Robert Blendon, who is an emeritus professor in health policy at Harvard's Chan School, led both polls. And he says this one was supposed to show something else.

ROBERT BLENDON: This poll was geared for the period after COVID was over. America was opening up, going back.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Of course, that is not what happened. The delta variant came along. Vaccinations dropped off. So instead, some people, especially higher-income people, are doing OK, starting to get back to normal. But for others, normal is a long way off.

MARTINEZ: And you had a chance to talk with some of the people who participated in this poll. What'd you hear from them?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, that's right. I spent last week calling people back. And for a lot of people I reached, it seemed like the pandemic kind of took the jar of their lives and shook up the contents. That is certainly true for Luz Maria Rodriguez. She's 67 and lives in Houston. And last summer, her brother died of a stroke. She ended up needing to move into a new apartment with her son, and money has been tight.

LUZ MARIA RODRIGUEZ: Things just started crumbling down - I mean, behind on utilities and credit cards.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: The bills piled up. And she says she ended up needing to go to food banks for the first time in her life. And she also had to talk to her landlord. And she says, thankfully, he was understanding. In the poll, 1 in 4 renters nationally said they had trouble making rent in the last few months. And in Houston, where Rodriguez lives, more than half had trouble.

RODRIGUEZ: There was nights I couldn't sleep. I thought I was just - it was a mental thing for me. I felt like I was going in circles.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: In the poll, 38% of households had serious financial problems in the last few months. And for households making under $50,000 a year, roughly 60% had serious problems.

MARTINEZ: And that's even though the federal government spent trillions - right? - trillions meant to help people handle these challenges.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. And Blendon from Harvard points out, in the poll, 2 out of every 3 households said they actually were getting federal assistance.

BLENDON: So what does that really say? It says that for people in the bottom income, the federal assistance that they're getting or can get is not providing a floor for them.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: We're now in a key moment, right? Congress is working on a package to enact some of President Biden's Build Back Better agenda. These results show a lot of people still just need to get back to baseline.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thank you very much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.

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MARTINEZ: One of the best-known head coaches in the NFL is suddenly out of a job - and not because his team is losing.

MARTIN: Jon Gruden led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory in 2003. He was also a TV football analyst before he was brought back to coaching by the Las Vegas Raiders. Last night, he resigned after it was revealed he sent years of emails containing racist, misogynistic and homophobic language.

MARTINEZ: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is with us. Tom - so Jon Gruden was coaching Sunday, and now - today he is gone. What led up to such a sudden departure?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: A, just last Friday, it was revealed that Gruden sent an email in 2011 in which he used racist language to refer to NFL players union head DeMaurice Smith, who is Black. At the time, it appeared to be a bad, yet isolated incident from a decade ago. Then yesterday, The New York Times reported it wasn't isolated. The report said the NFL accumulated a bunch of emails stemming from the league's investigation into workplace misconduct at the Washington football team. The emails were between Gruden and former Washington team president Bruce Allen and sometimes several others in the email group, all high-powered white men. And in the emails, over about a seven-year period, Gruden lashed out at people in and around the NFL, including Commissioner Roger Goodell. He railed against player protests during the national anthem, the advent of women referees, the drafting of an openly gay player in 2014. Now Gruden, who was celebrated by fans over the years for his snarly, tough-guy football image, he used homophobic and misogynistic language as he railed, according to the New York Times report.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, the language as ugly as it gets. Now, when this, like, came out yesterday, wasn't that long then before Gruden resigned, right?

GOLDMAN: Right. He had what was reported as an emotional meeting with Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis, who in 2018 lured Gruden back into coaching after nearly a decade as a TV football analyst. After their meeting, Gruden released a statement announcing his resignation, saying he didn't want to be a distraction and, quote, "I'm sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone." But chances are he did. This is a league where nearly 70% of players are African American. And on Gruden's Raiders, his now former team, Carl Nassib, is the first openly gay active player.

MARTINEZ: What's been the reaction so far?

GOLDMAN: Plenty on Twitter - one reaction of note from former NFL player Emmanuel Acho - he tweeted, Jon Gruden had to go immediately, and not one person should blame cancel culture. This is called accountability. Acho also recorded a short statement. And here's part of it.

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EMMANUEL ACHO: This is why it's imperative to have minorities as voices and faces in positions of power in society - so you don't have rampant ignorance running around like this.

MARTINEZ: And what he says there about are more minorities in positions of power, the NFL has been criticized over the decades for a lack of minority and female representation.

GOLDMAN: Absolutely, it has a lack of representation in the league positions of power - the coaching ranks, front offices. And there's been valid criticism on other fronts as well - the league being slow to react on the issue of domestic violence, the league essentially banning Colin Kaepernick for his protests during the national anthem, protests against social injustice and police brutality. And in recent years, the NFL has been trying to answer the criticism and show it's changing. So you can see why Jon Gruden has gone so quickly. Everything he reportedly said in those emails flew in the face of what the NFL's trying to do.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

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MARTINEZ: Nuclear secrets, Navy submarines and a peanut butter sandwich - they're all at the center of a federal proceeding in a West Virginia courthouse today.

MARTIN: Right. So an engineer for the U.S. Navy and his wife are making their first court appearance since being charged with trying to sell military secrets. The Justice Department says the couple tried to hand off those secrets to a foreign power. Instead, they were arrested as part of an FBI sting operation.

MARTINEZ: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas joins us now to tell us about the case. Ryan, there are details in this complaint that read like a spy novel - not a great one, maybe a bad one. But - so who's this couple, and what are they accused of?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Well, they are Jonathan Toebbe and his wife Diana. They live in Annapolis, Md. He works as a nuclear engineer for the Navy. His focus has been on naval nuclear propulsion. And he had top-secret security clearance. His wife, Diana, is a humanities teacher at a private school, and prosecutors say that she was in on this alleged scheme here.

Now, according to court papers, this whole thing started back in 2020, when the FBI got its hands on a package that prosecutors say Toebbe mailed to a foreign government seeking to establish a sort of covert relationship providing secret information in exchange for money. Court papers don't say which country it was, but the FBI posed as representatives of that unnamed country and went back and forth with Toebbe, communicating through encrypted channels. And court filings say that led to a series of exchanges in which Toebbe left small digital cards filled with thousands of pages of information in so-called dead drops. The FBI says his wife acted as a lookout on a couple of occasions when he left these small packages of information. And in return, they got paid by the undercover FBI agents in cryptocurrency.

MARTINEZ: Dead drops - tell us more about dead drops.

LUCAS: A dead drop is, in essence, a secret hiding place that spies use to pass information. In this case, prosecutors say Toebbe hid these digital cards inside things left at the dead drops. He allegedly hid them inside a band aid package, a gum wrapper. And in one instance, he allegedly wrapped the digital card in plastic, put it inside half of a peanut butter sandwich that was placed in a plastic bag. The thing here, of course, is the FBI was watching Toebbe as he serviced these various dead drops.

MARTINEZ: And there's the peanut butter sandwich. All right. So what do we know about the kind of information that could have been sold here?

LUCAS: Well, according to the government, this was serious stuff. Prosecutors say the information included schematic designs and operating parameters and other things for the U.S. Navy's Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines, which court papers describe as fast attack submarines with the latest in stealth and weapons technology. They cost around $3 billion apiece. This information could certainly help a foreign power build submarines equipped with nuclear propulsion systems. It's the kind of technology that was a subject of that recent deal between the U.S., Britain and Australia that caused such a rift with France when the U.S. cut France out of the deal. So this is very closely held stuff.

MARTINEZ: Have we heard anything from the couple yet?

LUCAS: Not yet, no. They were arrested over the weekend in West Virginia. As of last night, it was still unclear whether they'd hired an attorney, but they are scheduled to make their initial appearance in federal court today in Martinsburg, W.Va. Prosecutors have already indicated in court filings that they want the Toebbes to remain in custody. The government says the couple possibly faces life in prison if they are indeed convicted and go to trial, and therefore they say that they pose a risk of flight.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks a lot.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.