In recent days, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy has made headlines for playing into an increasingly antiquated narrative about professional sports. He told the Tampa Tribune that he would not have drafted Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay man selected by an NFL team, “Not 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.”
Sam’s college coaches and teammates do not seem to have had a problem working with a gay man. Dungy’s remarks seemed to suggest that anti-gay discomfort or animus is more widespread than it actually seems to be in practice. And it sparked a conversation about why upstanding gay players are more distracting, to Dungy or to anyone else, than anyone else. The result says more about Dungy’s professional future than Sam’s.
Last year, CBS Sports’ Will Brinson reported on remarks Dungy made about Richie Incognito, the former Dolphins guard, who served an extended suspension for his role in the harassment of his then-teammate Jonathan Martin. Dungy said that during his tenure with the Indianapolis Colts, Incognito was on the team’s “do not draft because of character” list.
“Dungy added that hazing isn’t something that has to happen but rather something that’s allowed to happen. ‘It doesn’t happen everywhere,’ Dungy said. ‘It happens where you allow it to happen.’ ”
Maybe it is possible to rationalize Dungy’s position on these two very different players. He did not want Incognito on his roster because he perceived Incognito to be a potential bully. And his initial statement suggested that Dungy was concerned about drafting Sam precisely because he was a potential target.
It is not exactly courageous for a person charged with coaching young people to treat a potential harasser and a potential target as equally troublesome figures. But I suppose there is something consistent, if not admirable, in the standard Dungy appeared to set in both of these sets of comments.
In his clarification, though, Dungy suggested that his concerns were external rather than internal. As my colleague Cindy Boren reported, Dungy released a statement denying that he believed Sam’s sexual orientation was inherently distracting.
“I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction,” Dungy said. “Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.”
Does Dungy believe that the media hype is something Sam has encouraged in a way that is improper? He did not say.
But in the past, Dungy has extended greater compassion to players and owners who have been the subjects of significant media firestorms, some more of their own making. And Dungy has himself been the recipient of greater kindness and understanding than he has shown Sam during highly scrutinized moments in his own life.
As a coach, Dungy hardly had a zero-tolerance policy for players who made decisions that jeopardized their safety or their abilities to continue playing for him.
During his tenure as head coach in Indianapolis, 15 of Dungy’s players were arrested on assorted charges including drunken driving and drug possession, according to a database of NFL-related arrests since 2000 maintained by the San Diego Union-Tribune. In three cases, the charges were dropped or the player was acquitted. In only one case, Ed Johnson’s arrest on marijuana possession charges, did the team respond. Johnson was cut, then re-signed by another head coach after Dungy’s retirement.
(His record was tougher in Tampa Bay, at least for the years the Union-Tribune’s data cover. Dungy cut Alex Ardley after he was charged with drunken driving in an incident in which Ardley crashed a car into a private home, and Darnell McDonald after his arrest on felony battery and burglary charges.)
Despite the level of press attention that followed every stage of Michael Vick’s arrest for his role in a dog-fighting ring, trial, prison term and return to the NFL, Dungy visited Vick in prison. That was hardly a neutral act of mentoring or even spiritual fellowship: Observers thought that the perception of Dungy’s support could help Vick return to the NFL. When Vick signed a contract with the Eagles, Dungy was present to show his support and continued to help support the quarterback in his personal life.
When Colts owner Jim Irsay was arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated and possession of drugs this year, Dungy said it was appropriate for his former boss to be suspended but spoke about Isray’s personal goodness to him — “He’s a special guy to me — a person who is very self-sacrificing and would do anything for you. He did some unbelievable things for me, for my family, for the city of Indianapolis, and I just want him to do well” — and wished for his recovery.
That goodness included Irsay’s support when Dungy’s son James committed suicide in 2005.
These experiences, in fact, might have made Dungy fairly well-suited to handle intense media scrutiny of one of his players and to coach a player through that scrutiny.
But Dungy’s faith is a critically important part of his life and identity. He does prison ministry now, in addition to his work as a commentator. And for him, practicing Christianity has, in the past, meant opposition to equal marriage rights.
If Dungy was still coaching in the NFL, he is probably not the leader I would have chosen to usher Michael Sam onto the national stage either. In private, Jeff Fisher, the coach of the St. Louis Rams, will have to finesse his team’s culture. In public, he will have to answer questions about Sam’s historic stature and possibly about whether his coaching decisions are politically motivated.
Dungy seems to have a strong internal moral compass. But how might he have handled accusations of bullying or harassment that to him sound like simple statements of belief that he shares? And whatever Dungy’s capacity to run a locker room, his advocacy and professed beliefs would have put additional scrutiny on him when he needed to defend Sam in public.
This seems like more of a problem for Tony Dungy than for Michael Sam. Keith Olbermann, never one to hold back, crowed that: “Tony Dungy just admitted that Tony Dungy wouldn’t be a skilled enough coach to deal with the distraction of doing the right thing.”
It might be more accurate to say that, in his second statement, Dungy skirted a dilemma that he and other people of certain beliefs will have to reconcile for themselves in a business environment where they have to manage gay employees and where gay people and allies of the gay rights movement might be among their customers. What happens when your beliefs lose out not just at the ballot box, but at the cash register?
Dungy may have made an unfortunate contribution to the very media environment around Sam that he says he intended to decry. But his remarks come too late to affect the draft. Dungy’s hesitancy has done more harm to his own reputation than it did to Sam’s career.