Tony Dungy landed in a firestorm this week after saying he wouldn’t have selected Michael Sam in the draft because it would be a distraction. Well, that’s not really what he said. Upon further review, the word “distraction” was nowhere to be found in the story Sunday in the Tampa Tribune.
“I wouldn’t have taken him,’’ Dungy, the former NFL coach and current NBC analyst, told the newspaper. “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.”
Dungy confirmed that’s what he meant in a statement Tuesday clarifying his previous remarks, so let’s not split hairs over word choices. He also cleared up a few other things about the story, which helped put his comments into context and present his case from a different angle.
Let’s review to see if his punishment, handed down swiftly in the Court of Public Opinion, was warranted.
For starters, the remarks were made several weeks ago under entirely different circumstances. Sam was the first openly gay player to be selected in the NFL Draft. At the time, the Oprah Winfrey Network planned a reality show that would chronicle Sam’s first season with the St. Louis Rams, assuming he made the team.
You know how many teams would agree to participate in a reality show about a seventh-round pick? Zero. And the reason they wouldn’t allow that to happen is because it would become a distraction. That’s why there has never been a reality show chronicling a full season of any player.
Dungy never said Sam’s sexual orientation would be a distraction, either, but that’s how many across mainstream and social media made it sound after running his comments through the ringer. Rather than examine them in proper context, they raced to their keyboards and expressed their outrage.
In no time, Dungy was criticized for allowing his religious beliefs to affect his opinions. He was accused of being homophobic. He also was called a hypocrite for his stance on Sam after supporting Michael Vick when the quarterback was released from prison after his dog-fighting conviction. In fact, there may be some truth in there.
Dungy wouldn’t be the first person whose faith shaped his thinking. And he did help Vick get back into the NFL. Vick’s return was a major distraction, but the Eagles thought he was worth the trouble because he was a proven NFL star.
That was Dungy’s point all along with Sam. “I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL. He absolutely does,” Dungy said in his statement. “I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process. It should not.
“I was not asked whether I would have a problem having Michael Sam on my team. I would not.
“I have been asked all of those questions several times in the last three months and have always answered them the same way – by saying that playing in the NFL is, and should be, about merit.”
So what’s the problem? Dungy is many things, some of which people may not appreciate. But there’s little debate over whether he’s an upstanding human being. He was asked an honest question. He gave an honest answer and was vilified. If asked again, after the situation changed, his answer may have changed.
And perhaps it would not. To me, it seemed Dungy found an imbalance between ability and hassle. He didn’t think Sam’s talent was worth the attention that came with him. Bet the house that several teams turned their attention away from Tim Tebow for precisely the same reason. He was a fringe player who wasn’t worth the aggravation.
That’s a simple assessment about how a single player can impact a team, not some grandiose statement about social acceptance.
If Dungy was guilty of anything, it was contributing to the very problem he wanted to avoid.
To be clear, Dungy didn’t think Sam’s sexuality would be a distraction to his teammates. He was concerned about the circus that accompanied Sam. That was the issue, and that’s what he meant when he said, “all of it.” As it turned out, he was right.
“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.”