"So it’s going to take a strong team who says, ‘You know what, we believe in this; we believe in second chances. We’re going to try to help this young man, and we may lose a few fans …’ So if I were there, I would. I would take a chance on him."
— Tony Dungy, to NPR in August 2009, on Michael Vick
See, we’ve got it wrong. The sad thing is not the hypocrisy, as uncomfortable and awful and blatant as it is. No, the sad thing is the absolute refusal to acknowledge it.
Monday was officially Slam Tony Dungy Day on the Internet, far and wide, after the celebrated player-turned-coach-turned-broadcaster said this of St. Louis Rams defensive end and former Missouri star Michael Sam in a story published by 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."
The blogosphere gasped. Then it raged.
How could Dungy take Vick — a man convicted of bankrolling an operation that tortured dozens of animals — under his wing, plead clemency for the disgraced quarterback, then dismiss Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay draft prospect, as a circus act that wasn’t worth the time or trouble?
Dog murderer? Be strong. Take a chance.
Homosexual? Wouldn’t want to deal with it. Things will happen.
First, let’s give Dungy, the first African American coach to ever win a Super Bowl, credit for his honesty, for the temerity to not just go out on that limb, but to then start jumping up and down on it. In this country, you have the right to speak your piece, even if that piece is pure Grape Nuts.
Unlike NFL executives and scouts earlier this year, Dungy had the stones to put his name on the take and run it up the flagpole, firestorm be damned.
But here’s the thing: It’s hard to shame Dungy here, no matter how hard or how eloquently we try. And we should.
Sam is a civil rights icon, a pioneer, bigger than football before he even plays a down in the NFL. His mark is made, forever and always, regardless of what happens when the Rams open up camp this week, regardless of what you think of his sexual orientation.
We can easily equate the two scenarios, strong men forging their respective paths in pro football. But in Dungy’s mind — and in the minds of many others who share his views on homosexuality — they don’t relate. There’s no disconnect, because … well, there was never any connection to begin with:
@StampedeBlue I don't agree with Jason Collins' lifestyle but think he deserves respect and should have opportunities like anyone else!
Sam, like Collins, is making a "lifestyle" choice.
It’s the old nature-versus-nurture argument, that "gay" is the result of temptations and moral weakness and not predetermined by heredity or genetics. Of course, scientific evidence — and this is the part where the angry emails start — leans toward the latter.
A recent study by Northwestern University found that gay men shared genetic signatures in part of their respective X chromosomes: Xq28. Now, it also included a caveat to say that the aforementioned genetic traits revealed only a 40 percent chance of a man becoming homosexual, and that "environmental factors" were likely to have the biggest impact on one’s sexual orientation. In 2013, a study in Canada found that the more older siblings a man has, the greater chance he has of being gay — and that the odds go up by a third for each brother.
Michael Sam is the seventh-youngest of eight children. Interesting.
Give Dungy credit for holding firm to his moral high ground, even if that place becomes ever more lonely and anachronistic. What if Chuck Noll, some 30 years ago, had figured Dungy, as a black man, was too much of a "distraction" to join his Steelers coaching staff?
Not that his inference to a media circus wasn’t without merit — but those distractions are most likely to come from those surrounding Sam, as opposed to from Sam himself. The constant presence of Oprah Winfrey’s OWN Network, for example, was a potential headache, one that was wisely shelved.
Sam is different. Sam is unique. Sam is history, walking and breathing, before us. That doesn’t make him bad or good, evil or saintly. But it does make him a target, the flame to a circle of camera-toting moths.
While Dungy twisted in the digital wind, the NFL reported Monday that in terms of jersey sales from April 1 through July 17 on NFLShop.com, Sam’s 96 ranked sixth in the entire league. That placed him well ahead of fellow rookies Teddy Bridgewater (13th), No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney (16th) and Blake Bortles (18th). And surpassed sales of Tom Brady (seventh), Drew Brees (eighth) and Aaron Rodgers (ninth).
Dungy might not want to deal with a Michael Sam in his daily life. But it’s becoming clearer by the day that much of America doesn’t share his sentiment.