The Dungy Dogpile

by Andrew Johnson

Revered NFL coach catches flak for predicting what media would do

Tony Dungy is being proven right, and his critics in the media are helping him do it.

Dungy, a well-respected coach and perhaps an even more respected person in the NFL community, currently finds himself at the bottom of a media dogpile over comments that he would not draft St. Louis Rams rookie linebacker Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay NFL player earlier this year.

“I wouldn’t have taken him,” Dungy told the Tampa Bay Tribune in an article published this week (reporter Ira Kaufman later revealed the quotation is from a separate interview he conducted with Dungy in February). “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.”

Now, the widely revered former Super Bowl-winning coach of the Indianapolis Colts has become the goat of sports media. One right after another, commentators lined up to level various “Dungy is anti-gay,” or “a homophobe” charges. One doesn’t have to go more than a few paragraphs before a columnist points to Dungy’s Christian faith as the reason; the real gumshoes cite the Indiana Family Institute’s Friend of Family Award he won in 2007 when the state passed a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. In an otherwise slow time in the sports year, sports television and radio now have something to debate ad nauseam.

Sam has since reacted to Dungy’s remarks as well, saying, “Thank God he wasn’t the St. Louis Rams coach.”

For his own sake, Sam is right to be grateful the Rams selected him, but that doesn’t necessarily make Dungy wrong. Dungy’s basic point, as he clarified in a follow-up statement, is not about Sam as an individual or a player. Rather, Dungy argued the increased media attention surrounding Sam doesn’t merit the usual benefits of the 249th, or the eight-to-last, pick: “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.”

Dungy made a risk-versus-reward assessment regarding the prospects of an undersized player who likely will not make the team and the spotlight he, along with his teammates and coaches, would be under in the process; the Rams, in their own right, felt otherwise. Teams always take in to consideration various aspects of a player’s background, history, character, etc. when filling out the roster, and what would best serve the team; Dungy and the Rams both did, and came to different conclusions.

What Dungy never said, despite efforts to frame it as such, was that Sam’s sexual orientation was the distraction, but rather that it was the oft-described “media circus” that accompanies his profile that is the distraction. Since Sam came out, he has been one of the most prominent figures in sports. Pre- and post-draft coverage discussed Sam at length; the Oprah Winfrey Network hoped to make a reality show about him; and, just last week at the ESPY Awards, ESPN featured Sam more than any other athlete as it presented him with its Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

Inadvertently, Dungy became what he predicted: an example of fierce scrutiny for uttering anything short of a full embrace of Sam. In doing so though, the backlash validates his prophetic comments. The media is the only one that create media distractions, and benefits from doing so. It was Kaufman who decided to inject Dungy’s months-old comments in to the public sphere; it’s the mass sports media that latched on to Dungy’s words to scrutinize it; and it continues to be that media that covers the various ripples of the initial story. They don’t just want to talk about Sam as a player; they want to talk about him as the first gay player and the ensuing storylines that come with it, and Dungy’s remarks helped propel that narrative.

Sam’s profile is indeed a first in major professional sports, and perhaps warrants such coverage, but to criticize anyone for remarking on anything other than Sam’s play on the field is disingenuous from the sports media.

“My sincere hope is that we will be able to focus on [Sam’s] play and not on his sexual orientation,” Dungy said in his statement. For the time being, that seems a long way off.

— Andrew Johnson is an editorial associate at National Review Online.