As soon as I saw Tony Dungy’s recent quotes about the Michael Sam situation, saying that he wouldn’t have drafted Sam because he “wouldn’t want to deal with” the baggage, I knew he would be publicly castigated. Dungy deviated from our culture’s de facto “Things That Are Acceptable to Say About Michael Sam” talking points. Here’s a short list of those points about Sam, drafted this year in the seventh and final round as the first openly gay player in the National Football League:
- He’s a hero
- He’s courageous
And that’s about it.
Dungy was eviscerated shortly after his statement by a columnist named Dan Wetzel on YahooSports.com. I hadn’t previously heard of Dan Wetzel and, between us, he and I have won zero Super Bowls and have zero years of NFL playing or coaching experience. The subtext in that last sentence, in case you missed it, is that Dungy is qualified to speak to NFL-related issues in a way that we are not, given that he has played in the league and won multiple Super Bowl rings.
Wetzel accused Dungy of cowardice, for being on the wrong side of history. He predictably compared Sam to Jackie Robinson and compared Dungy’s couple of sentences to all the people who never wanted to integrate schools or integrate baseball or give women the right to vote. He ended the article by saying, “The good news . . . is that Tony Dungy doesn’t draft or coach players anymore.”
It was all very Huffington Post except that it was published on Yahoo Sports. And Wetzel isn’t really even the issue, as you can count on a similar article being written be many other columnists over the next 24 hours.
I had an opportunity to interview Dungy a few years ago and found him to be humble, gracious, and soft-spoken—exactly the kind of coach I would want my kid playing for. He's not perfect—just a sinner like you and me and Dan Wetzel and Michael Sam. But Dungy is the kind of coach I would want to play for in that he seemed to treat every human in his orbit with a lot of respect and grace. I don’t have to tell you how rare this is in football. Dignity can sometimes be in short supply. That’s why I’m defending him (in a small way), but in a larger way defending his right to have an opinion.
Here are several of my own opinions.
- From an athletic standpoint, Michael Sam is not Jackie Robinson.
Jackie Robinson was a singular talent who gave his team an undeniable competitive advantage. Lest we semi-saint Branch Rickey, there was a good dose of rational self-interest in his compulsion to sign Jackie Robinson in spite of the upheaval he knew it would create. By contrast, Sam is a seventh-round draft choice who may or may not make it. If Sam is Lawrence Taylor, then this is a different discussion.
- A few years ago, when everybody said, “I don’t want to sign Tim Tebow because of the media circus that comes with Tim Tebow” almost nobody defended him. In fact, most of us nodded our heads in agreement (I did, even though Tebow and I share a common faith).
To me, Sam presents a similar situation. It’s a question of “Do I want to draft or sign a marginal prospect who comes with a lot of media-related baggage? Is he worth it?” The answer, with Tebow, was “No, he isn’t.” To suggest that teams or coaches are somehow morally obligated to give opportunities to certain players is a slippery slope. Must every backfield contain a Christian, a Muslim, and an atheist in order to be morally acceptable? If Tebow were Dan Marino, his discussion would have also been different.
- Should all the teams that passed on Johnny Manziel because of Manziel’s lifestyle be similarly castigated?
I care about who Johnny Manziel sleeps with about as much as a care about who Michael Sam sleeps with, which is to say not at all. A lot of teams ostensibly passed on Manziel because of his partying “lifestyle,” which is Manziel’s choice and may or may not affect his employment. As of now, there are zero HuffPo-type articles talking about what a “courageous young man” Manziel is for flying to Vegas on the weekend to be photographed with a bevy of young party girls.
- An article like Wetzel’s puts him in the tenuous position of moral arbiter.
I remember a time, not too terribly long ago, when Dungy was on the other side of a similar discussion. Citing the dearth of African American coaches in the league, commentators allowed only one culturally acceptable stance on whether or not teams should hire him. Now, a few years later, Dungy has proven himself in the marketplace. He became the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl, and he won an audience for his bestselling books. The NFL (in my opinion) is better for his success. The same thing may or may not happen as naturally for Sam. My point is that Sam doesn’t need (and probably doesn’t want) the media telling the culture what to think about his sexuality.
Is Rams head coach Jeff Fisher suddenly the bad guy if he decides to cut Sam? Or is he still the good guy who decided to draft him in the first place? This might be the no-win situation that Dungy would have wanted to avoid. But what Sam has, starting now, is a training camp invite and an opportunity to prove himself in the marketplace, which is, ostensibly, a very American thing to have.
So is an opinion.