Monday, July 21, 2014

Why Tony Dungy's Comments Reflect a Bigger NFL Problem

I respect Tony Dungy as a man, as a coach and as a figure worthy of respect. Yet his comments today saddened me regarding that he'd pass up drafting Michael Sam to avoid the circus. It didn't surprise me either, given what we've known about him for years.

Tony Dungy's been a no-nonsense guy for decades. He came up in the Steelers organization where that attitude was ingrained by the hard-hat, workman-like style of head coach Chuck Noll. Dungy coached his teams that way and his organizations provided that same structure. He's a man of courage and outspokenness on several pertinent issues such as race in coaching hires.

However, this is not a case of homophobia. This is not about Dungy's faith possibly as a factor*. This is not a case to lecture a Black man about the civil rights struggle he lived through and how Black athletes were once avoided**. It's about a culture in pro sports that is scared if guys appear to have something bigger than the game around them.

That's why I found his opinion on Michael Sam being drafted so cowardly. It's the cowardly, old-school line of thinking in pro sports that you want guys who'll put their head down and work, not be somebody who'll bring a lot of attention to themselves. It's why we overvalue "humble" athletes as opposed to "boisterous, loud" ones.

His opinion speaks to his core as a guy who just wants to see guys play football first. Yet that mindset is not only popular among executives, it also reveals a weak-mindedness to not be able to handle the "distraction" or people who think that said player can't be coached to fit into a system.

Michael Irvin was a character. Deion Sanders was a character. Warren Sapp, a Dungy player, was a character. Those guys and others were also hard workers who never let their antics overshadow their desire to be great. They also got chances to prove their greatness because that talent was there.

That's why I'm disappointed in Dungy. He's so concrete to that line of thinking that he doesn't realize it's a coward's way out. It says that if he were in an organization, he'd be afraid that his team could not handle it. Guys who were there long before Sam and could be there after him.

But he's not alone. I saw several articles question if the NFL was ready for a openly gay player. We heard anonymous executives fear drafting Sam for similar reasons. We also heard similar theories as to why Johnny Manziel fell far in the first round and like Sam, he too had football reasons for his slide.

It's the cowardly mentality in pro sports teams, especially the NFL that's passes up talent because of non-criminal issues. It's a weak-minded belief that athletes have to fit into a robotic model because you're investing millions of dollars into them. That's why I believed that a team that drafted Michael Sam showed courage because they were willing to face that storm and see a player who they thought could fit in their system.

Sam deserves the chance to prove he can play. Come training camp, like every other player, all that matters is proving between the lines what you can do. He won't be a distraction if the team won't let him because of their strong structure. It reminds me of what Donte Stallworth said about this before the draft.

So I'm not surprised at what Tony Dungy said, just saddened that he stuck to the hard-line approach the NFL yields to that shows a fear of overestimating what someone can bring to the table. That's the attitude that must change along with others.

(Ed. Note - Dungy clarified his comments a day later. Yet for me, I already knew where he was coming from. As I stated earlier, this is more about the idea of a distraction being a problem for weak-minded teams than questioning Dungy's view on gay athletes. It's an old school mentality not regarding gay athletes but any athlete who's perceived as being bigger than game. That was my issue all along and his clarification did not change my stance.)

*While this may be a factor, nobody asked Dungy if that had anything to do with his views. I'd caution people not to conflate the two in this case until proven otherwise.
**I will remind my readers that Black athletes were once avoided or passed over not because they were media distractions but because of straight up racism and prejudice. While some aspects are similar to female reporters, female employees, gay athletes and other athletes of color, let's not overlook the blatant racism/sexism/homophobia that sought to keep them out and not simplify it as a "distraction"*

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