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Tony Dungy, Michael Sam and the Complicated Relationship Between Sports, Faith and Rights

Former coach Tony Dungy thinks Michael Sam will be a distraction.
Former coach Tony Dungy thinks Michael Sam will be a distraction.
Photo by Marcus Qwertyus

Former coach and all around good guy Tony Dungy said he would not have drafted Michael Sam, the All-American linebacker taken by the St. Louis Rams who is openly gay.In and interview with the Tampa Tribune, Dungy explained he believes Sam's sexual orientation will be a distraction, "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."

As some have pointed out, Dungy has been a fervent advocate of players like Michael Vick and Tim Tebow, both players who have caused massive distractions -- Vick for his jail time after his involvement with a dog fighting ring and Tebow for his outspoken views on Christianity combined with his natural charisma as a Heisman Trophy winner. The former coach has also been behind the move to provide equal opportunity for African American coaches who have historically been under represented in the NFL.

Some might call this hypocrisy, but a more apt descriptor might be "complicated."

Dungy, who is black, has undoubtedly been forced to confront racism throughout his life. He has been open in his belief that the NFL should do better at including blacks in the hiring process, even writing the foreward for the book Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL. So, how does his concern over the distraction an openly gay player might bring to the locker room not make him a hypocrite? Namely, his faith.

Dungy is a Christian. It is not surprising that a man with his beliefs would find Sam's orientation difficult or even objectionable. And despite his strong stance on equal opportunity for those who may have been discriminated against, religion has a way of throwing a monkey wrench in to the machinery of logic. And, in some ways, being black may make it even more difficult.

It is not uncommon for African Americans who also have strong religious convictions to be offended by the notion that gay rights and equal rights are the same them because they don't believe homosexuals were born gay. They, on the other hand, had no choice when it came to their race. It's a razor thin line in the sand, but one that has driven a wedge between evangelical and non-religious Democrats/liberals who typically stand on the same side of most socio-political issues. Those who would walk lockstep in protest of any other form of social injustice find themselves at odds over this one.

I suspect Dungy finds himself in the same confounding space. And while he has been careful in the words he chose to describe his concerns, it is hard to believe someone so adamant in his defense of other players who have created massive distractions through their sometimes troubling actions would suddenly decide being gay was simply too much unless his faith was a factor...and his football.

 

Let's face it, pro sports is a vicious place where men, even those who may not feel it, behave aggressively. That culture searches out weakness and preys on it. Ask Jonathan Martin, an otherwise talented young athlete who was, for all intents and purposes, bullied out of his job and possibly out of his career by players allegedly trying to toughen him up with racial and sexual taunts, some going WAY over the line.

His only crime was not fighting back, something that seems antithetical to the very nature of competition, but not for the vast majority of us who don't beat the living hell out of one another for a living. In this world, any difference is seen as weakness and can and will be exploited, which is where Dungy's "things will happen" comment no doubt emerged.

We as fans incubate this behavior, demanding our players be vicious on the field. We may find the concept of putting a bounty on another player's health distasteful when we find out about it, but we will boo anyone we think isn't doing everything he can to neutralize his opponent. We laud the very aggression and violence we would never teach our children.

And while many of us might praise Michael Sam's differences and find his desire for equality laudable in our everyday world, the place where faith and football collides is not normal society.

As someone who supports Sam's differences, I find this disappointing, just as I find Dungy's comments discouraging. This is a man who has done a lot of good for the NFL. He certainly has a right to voice his opinion about whatever he wants even if I personally disagree. But, his premise, however uncomfortable, isn't necessarily wrong. It took Sam until the very late rounds of the draft to be taken despite projections of a middle-round selection before his announcement. Clearly, teams were concerned about the very distraction Dungy referenced. Rams officials can stand and cheer when Sam speaks passionately at the ESPYs, but they passed on him for six rounds like every other NFL team.

The sad truth is Sam being gay probably will be a distraction as camps begin to open this week. Political talk shows will make Sam's orientation grist for the mill. Players will be asked how they feel about it by reporters looking for headline-grabbing responses. Someone will take the bait and the battle will rage on.

For Dungy's part, his comments clearly reflect the feelings of dozens of others around the league. It's angering for those who support Sam, and that's understandable. But it's not hypocritical for him to say something dozens of others around the NFL were thinking. It's not even necessarily inaccurate. It's just complicated.


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