Why Tony Dungy’s comments about Michael Sam aren’t really a surprise

Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL, was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at ESPN's ESPY awards. Here's a guide to who he thanked during his emotional speech. (The Washington Post)

Updated with Dungy statement at 1:30 p.m.

Michael Sam may not be a distraction this week at the St. Louis Rams training camp, but the same cannot be said about Tony Dungy.

The former coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts found himself drawing criticism for telling the Tampa Tribune that, if he were still coaching today, he wouldn’t have drafted Sam “(n)ot because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth…things will happen.”

Given that Dungy, now an NBC commentator, has spoken openly about his religious beliefs over the years, his stance on Sam wasn’t a surprise to Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz, who wrote of Dungy:

It doesn’t surprise me that Tony Dungy said he wouldn’t draft openly gay NFL player Michael Sam because it would be a distraction. Given Dungy’s religious nature, his Indiana Family Institute affiliation and his expressed opposition to gay marriage, I wouldn’t expect Dungy to open the door too widely to a gay athlete.

It is, however, disappointing.

Dungy talks about the distraction, how things could possibly go awry with a gay player in the locker room, but I tend to think this has less to do with distractions and everything to do with his personal disapproval of Sam’s sexuality.

But Dungy’s stance on Sam, who was given the ESPYs’ Arthur Ashe Courage Award this month was troubling for those who remember all too well how he helped Michael Vick and the NFL repair their images by mentoring Vick after he served time in a federal prison for charges related to dog-fighting. He has also worked with other troubled players, as he told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times in 2009. Whether a player is struggling with his environment or personal demons, Dungy told Farmer that, after mentoring, “eventually the light goes on and they change. That’s part of coaching, that’s part of being a parent, that’s part of helping young people grow into adulthood.”

While Dungy’s comments about Sam seem to indicate that coaching doesn’t extend to the former Missouri player, they’re actually consistent with his stance over the years. In 2007, he accepted the “Friend of Family” award from the Indiana Family Institute and was asked about the group’s support for an amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as being between one man and one woman. “We’re not trying to downgrade anyone else,” he said then. “But we’re trying to promote the family — family values the Lord’s way. Family is important, and that’s what we’re trying to support. We’re not anti-anything else and not trying to hate anyone else. We’re trying to promote the family, family values, the Lord’s way. Just like I’m trying to win on the football field the Lord’s way. I’m on the Lord’s side when I’m on the field, and on the Lord’s side when I’m off the field.”

Dungy remained true to those beliefs when he criticized President Obama’s stance on gay marriage, tweeting: “I was disappointed he veered from biblical view.” So it isn’t a surprise that Dungy wouldn’t have wanted the distraction of dealing with Michael Sam. Never mind that pioneers, like the first player to break baseball’s color barrier or the first black head coach in the NFL, are always a “distraction.” ESPN’s Keith Olbermann thought Dungy’s comments revealed something more about the man who won a Super Bowl in Indy, his reluctance to separate his personal and professional beliefs and how distraction can be become discrimination.

“Tony Dungy just admitted,” Olbermann said, “that Tony Dungy wouldn’t be a skilled enough coach to deal with the distraction of doing the right thing.”

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Dungy reiterated his concerns about Sam being a distraction — to the media but not to his teammates or organization — and defended his right to play in the NFL.

“I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization,” he said in a statement on Pro Football Talk.com. “I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction. I wish Michael Sam nothing but the best in his quest to become a star in the NFL and I am confident he will get the opportunity to show what he can do on the field.”

 

RELATED:  The ‘female Michael Jordan,’ ‘next Willie Mays’ and other gay, lesbian, transgender athletes

 

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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