Tony Dungy On Michael Sam: Is It Possible To Agree & Disagree All At Once?

I’ve spent the last day and a half recovering from a 24-hour flu virus, watching a recorded Red Sox game about 12 hours after it finished and writing the Pac-12 football preview here at TheSportsNotebook.  I just returned to the sports media world about an hour ago and found that Tony Dungy had set the cat down amidst the pigeons when it came to Michael Sam. If it’s possible to strongly agree and strongly disagree with a statement all in one fell swoop, Dungy’s quote was it.

Dungy, of course, is a former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the first African-American coach to win the Super Bowl (2006 with Indy). Sam, of course, is the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL, going in the seventh round to the St. Louis Rams. Dungy had this to say in an interview with The Tampa Tribune…

“I wouldn’t have taken him. 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.’

On the surface, this is an unremarkable statement. NFL coaches are notorious, far more so than in other sports, for being control freaks and treating the word “distraction” as though it’s the dirtiest word in the English language.

But with Dungy, there’s context that has given this a different look. Not only did he criticize someone who has become the latest poster child for social liberalism but the former coach himself is a devoutly conservative Christian. Thus, his quote is not taken at face value, but seen as a broader expression of Dungy’s religious and cultural beliefs. For the record, I didn’t take his quote at face value, but immediately saw it in the broader context of the coach’s previous stances.

It’s here that I agree with Dungy and come to his defense against the all-too-predictable mob that’s lined up at his door. I believe in the Catholic Church’s moral doctrine, which of course teach against sodomy and same-sex marriage. I’m tired of feeling constantly under attack for it and having that belief extrapolated by others into meaning something it really doesn’t. I find Tony Dungy to be a good and honorable man and am glad he’s been part of the NFL, continuing today in his role as a studio analyst on NBC.

But then we move into the second part of Dungy’s comments, which is about taking them at face value. It’s here that I disagree.

This past summer I was driving down the road with a friend who shares my passion for the Washington Redskins, and we were rehashing what we both saw as a failed draft. As we reviewed the later rounds, I said simply “You know, if you strip away the social agenda surrounding him, I’d have liked to have seen us take Michael Sam by the fourth or fifth round (note this is two rounds ahead of where Sam actually went).”

My rationale was simple—Michael Sam was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. The last I checked, the SEC was universally acknowledged as the best conference in the country, and primarily because it controlled the flow of play in the trenches and on the edges. Sam played defensive end—in the trench and on the edge and thrived.

There were legitimate football concerns about his size—he’s too small to play DE in the NFL, and possibly not fast enough to be a stand-up outside linebacker. Fair enough, but I wasn’t talking about taking him in the first round. I was talking about taking a flier in the latter half of the draft.

So there’s my first disagreement with Dungy—I would have picked Sam, the retired coach wouldn’t have. No big deal—I’ve certainly been wrong before (thousands of time actually) and he has a Super Bowl ring.

But the disagreement goes one level deeper and it goes to the issue of “distractions.” I’ll put it simply—I don’t have a lot of sympathy for NFL teams that complain about distractions. I didn’t when it came to Tim Tebow and I don’t again here.

I understand that teams don’t like distractions, but the reality is that this league is the most overhyped, overanalyzed league in the history of modern sports. Which means, in turn, that it generates huge revenues and everyone is involved is highly paid. If Michael Sam is a distraction—and there’s no doubt that he will be—everyone involved is getting paid for their trouble. Which means the only issue should be whether or not he can play football.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating that people check their beliefs at the door when they enter the locker room. But to bring it back to my own beliefs, the same Church that teaches against sodomy and same-sex marriage also teaches against unmarried sex, contraception, and here you can insert the obligatory joke about the Catholic Church teaching against anything fun. Don’t worry, I won’t be offended. I might even laugh.

And the same Church also teaches that gays should not be subject to “unjust discrimination” (the phrase used in the Catechism of the Catholic Church). How that should be applied is a matter of opinion, but to me, it means that unless you want to issue some broad sweeping edict against working with anyone who does things you don’t agree with, then don’t single out homosexuality above everything else.

I realize that in this post, I’ve probably managed to offend just about everybody on all sides of the topic. If you’re in that group, I’ll just close with this…

*To Dungy-haters: Get over the fact that not every African-American is going to toe your line and believe that race and homosexuality are automatically equated. This is bordering on race bullying the way minorities who might have conservative religious views are being railroaded.

*To Catholic conservatives who have a problem with my statements on Sam: Either come up with your own application of avoiding “unjust discrimination” against gays, or stop saying you hate the sin, but love the sinner. There are more of us that agree with your political stance, but have a deep discomfort with your tactics than you might realize. People who are gay should be able to go to work and function without fear of being bullied.

Maybe we can summarize it all even more simply—no one should be bullied. Disagreed with yes, bullied never. It’s happening right now to Tony Dungy, and it shouldn’t happen to Michael Sam.