Why Dungy is wrong about Michael Sam

Tony Dungy says that drafting Michael Sam creates a distraction he would not have wanted as a coach.
Tony Dungy says that drafting Michael Sam creates a distraction he would not have wanted as a coach. (Associated Press)
Posted: July 24, 2014

In the summer of 2009, when the Eagles courted the contempt of dog lovers everywhere and signed Michael Vick, they made clear that they had sought out and received Tony Dungy's counsel and approval.

During and after Vick's 18-month prison term for dogfighting, Dungy had become a mentor to him. This was no small thing. As the former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts, as a man regarded as something of a moral compass within the NFL and its warped value system, Dungy wielded power and influence in fostering acceptance for Vick's return to pro football.

Dungy was so integral to the process, in fact, that he sat alongside Vick and then-Eagles coach Andy Reid at Vick's introductory news conference, as if to reaffirm that the Eagles had done a good and righteous thing, as if Dungy's presence and testimony were a shield against those who would question either the sincerity of Vick's rehabilitation or the Eagles' reasons for signing him.

Those reasons, whether the Eagles wanted to admit it or not, included winning football games. Five years later, it is that context that reveals the wrongheadedness of Dungy's comments Monday about Michael Sam - the NFL's first openly gay player.

The St. Louis Rams selected Sam, a defensive end from the University of Missouri, in the seventh round of this year's draft, and Dungy told the Tampa Tribune that, given the opportunity, he would not have drafted him. "Not because I don't believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play," Dungy said, "but I wouldn't want to deal with all of it."

Dungy clarified his remarks Tuesday, issuing a statement in which he said that Sam's sexual orientation should have no role in evaluating his ability to play in the NFL and that he, Dungy, would have no problem coaching Sam.

"What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams," he said. "I do not believe Michael's sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization. I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction."

It's easy to ascribe a baser motivation to Dungy, who has been outspoken in his opposition to gay marriage, for his original comments and to accuse him of backtracking from his subsequent statement. It's a little cheap, too. So in the interest of good faith, let's deal with his words as they are, because they alone illustrate why he's wrong about the supposed deleterious effects of Sam's presence - or that of any gay player.

In the NFL, the word distraction is a loaded term, a cover-all for just about anything that might stand in the way of victory on Sunday. The notion of eliminating distractions is at the core, for one example, of Chip Kelly's coaching philosophy with the Eagles, and it has been offered as an explanation, among several, for why Kelly and the team decided to release wide receiver DeSean Jackson.

But what exactly qualifies as a "distraction" in the NFL? The Rams, as they should, are receiving nothing but public praise for having drafted Sam, and increased media attention or scrutiny hardly seems to qualify as a "distraction" anymore, since it's impossible to increase the attention paid to pro football today. Everyone involved in the sport is numb to it now, or at least should be. Hell, everyone was numb to it by 2009, which is why the outrage and protests that followed the Eagles' acquisition of Vick were never much of a threat to them.

Vick had committed terrible crimes and been punished for them, but those acts were never likely to compromise his or the Eagles' performance on the field. Dungy's role was to validate that mind-set, to reassure the Eagles and everyone else that Vick's criminal past wouldn't stand in the way of the franchise's primary mission - the primary mission of all NFL franchises. Dungy's job was to tell people, It's OK to have Michael Vick on your team because you can still win with him. Think about it: What turned out to be the greater "distraction" to the Eagles: Vick, who by all indications upheld his promise to keep his nose clean over his five seasons here, or Terrell Owens' behavior in 2005, when he argued with coaches, turned teammates against each other, and caused a schism in the locker room that led to a 6-10 season?

When NFL coaches and players talk about "showing character" or "being a good teammate" or "eliminating distractions," as Dungy did this week, they are referring to the manner in which a player attends to his football-related responsibilities. Nothing more. It's twisted. It doesn't fit with society at large. But it's true, and it's accepted by many who coach and play and watch the games, and it's why what Dungy said about Sam was so daft, so unreflective of reality.

Sam's presence probably would have been a "distraction" in 1996, Dungy's first season as an NFL head coach, and it might have been one in 2008, Dungy's last. But acceptance of homosexuality has been increasing for a long time now, and that growth, for myriad reasons, has seemed to accelerate over the last half-decade - including within NFL locker rooms. The more pertinent question regarding Sam, actually, is whether his status as a trailblazer will (here's that word again) distract him from his duties as a player. But that's on him to handle, not his teammates, and the shame of what Dungy said is that he's reducing Sam's sexuality, Sam's identity, Sam's impact to just another obstacle for a team to overcome in the name of chasing a Super Bowl - like a serious injury, like a prison sentence for dogfighting, like so many things that can never compare to Michael Sam's decision to come out.

It's a shame, but it's not surprising. This is the NFL. This is professional football. This is the world, and these are the values, that Tony Dungy knows best.



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