Like a football team that’s being asked to play in a hostile stadium with referees who are conspiring with the other team, there is no way Tony Dungy can win the discussion surrounding his comments about Michael Sam.
He has clarified what he said, but it will not matter. The narrative die has been cast.
He (and those who share many of his thoughts) can’t win, because he can’t do the impossible. Let me explain.
Why are we talking about Michael Sam?
Demetrius Rhaney. Do you know who he is?
How about Ahmad Dixon? Does that name ring a bell?
Those two were selected by the St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys respectively in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL draft – directly before and after Michael Sam.
The Tampa Tribune‘s not asking Tony Dungy to share his thoughts on Rhaney, Dixon or even first overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
Seventh round draft picks are not discussed by the national media before they ever play – except Michael Sam.
Not being an NFL scout or having never played a down of organized football, I have no idea if Sam will be a successful player. He could fail to make the Rams’ roster or he could play in the Pro Bowl.
This discussion is not about his skill as a football player. We are having a national discussion of Dungy’s comments not because of Sam’s extraordinary play on the field, but because of his sexual orientation.
It’s about his being the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL. Even Dungy’s critics are admitting as much in so many words.
Slate said Dungy’s comments were “blatantly homophobic—a perfect example of the anti-gay animus that many LGBTQ people fear from their employers.”
Another pieced linked his quote on Sam with the attitudes that led to the death of Eric Garner, who died after an NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold. That’s pretty inflammatory rhetoric for a take on a seventh round draft pick.
Except Sam’s not just a seventh round draft pick. These articles make it clear that Sam is different. Criticism, or even perceived criticism, of him leads to accusations of hate and bigotry.
Why Dungy can’t win?
These columns, the sports radio hosts, and national backlash against Dungy make one thing perfectly clear: Sam’s potential NFL career should be considered and discussed differently than other players because of its historic nature.
But isn’t this whole controversy about Dungy supposedly doing just that? Even though he denied his comments had anything to do with Sam’s sexual orientation, Dungy was criticized for – in the minds of the critics – saying he would treat Sam differently because he was gay.
A piece at the Orlando Sentinel condemned Dungy’s comments and told readers what should be important in evaluating talent: “It shouldn’t matter if Sam is straight, gay or abstains from sex. All that matters is whether he can play football.”
Oh, so now it’s just about football, not about Sam being different? It can’t be both ways.
And the funny thing is, Dungy agrees that it should be about football and what helps the team win:
The best players make the team, and everyone should get the opportunity to prove whether they’re good enough to play. That’s my opinion as a coach. But those were not the questions I was asked.
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.
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. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.
The truth is, every player is evaluated on everything – on and off the field – because potentially millions of dollars will be invested in them by that franchise. Therefore, distractions matter. (It’s one of the reasons you haven’t seen Tim Tebow in a while.)
And guess what, this whole media circus that erupted after a reporter, to spice up his story, used Dungy’s remarks from weeks ago (when Sam was considering doing a Oprah-backed reality TV show during training camp) – it proves the point Dungy was making. Michael Sam is not a distraction, but the media’s obsession with this story clearly is.
We cannot demand Dungy evaluate the selection of Michael Sam differently than other players because of its historic nature, while simultaneously demanding Dungy not evaluate Michael Sam differently than other players because of the media attention his selection would bring.
You cannot chastise him for not considering the broader picture, but also for considering the added scrutiny brought about by the “broader picture.” You are demanding Dungy do the impossible.
I’d prefer we just let Michael Sam play football for as long as he can as well as he can and let Tony Dungy analyze football the same.
But I don’t think that’s going to happen. It might be impossible, too.