BY GREG COTE
It’s no surprise that Tony Dungy’s comments this week about Michael Sam — comments that on the surface seemed more benign than inflammatory — have created such a national tempest. Sports are a Petri dish for argument and debate under any circumstances, and when you add the politics of religion and gay issues to the mix, the chances of a quietly civil discussion have pretty much left the building.
So Dungy, the former coach turned TV analyst, says he would not have drafted Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player, because of the “distraction,” and a media frenzy commences. Dungy has since led the league in hopeless attempts to “clarify” his comments.
The problem here is that Dungy’s well-known religious beliefs are inseparable from the reasons why he might think of Sam as an unbearable distraction — or at least the reasons why we might think he thinks that. The ex-coach’s idea of family values does not include gay marriage, for example. He believes his Bible tells him homosexuality is a sin. Part of his clumsy “clarifying” was to say, of Sam, “Even though I don’t agree with his lifestyle, I love him.”
His “lifestyle.” In the dictionary of religious intolerance, that’s code for the wrongheaded, disproved notion that being gay is a choice. (Quick aside: The heterosexual “lifestyle” could itself use some better PR in that half of all biblically approved man-woman marriages end in divorce).
Isn’t it crazy how religion is so pliable that it can be used to justify anything? Your God’s will may be to deny same-sex marriage. My God’s will may be to lovingly treat all equally. We are both absolutely right, of course! And we wonder why wars start in God’s name?
Dungy is a widely respected man who has sort of taken on an elder statesman, voice-of-conscience role in the NFL, but it’s tough for even a well-respected man to explain the difference between a coach (or ex-coach) thinking a gay player is a sinner and a coach thinking a black player is less of a man. Prejudice is prejudice. Equal rights are equal rights.
Can you imagine there being a head coach in the NFL who uses the N-word? No? But is that so different than there being a head coach in the NFL who is anti-gay-rights?
I also got a chuckle over Dungy’s sudden fear of “distraction,” considering that he, more than anyone else, championed Michael Vick’s return to the NFL from an incarceration for dog-fighting crimes.
There are distractions all over sports and the NFL, almost all of them unnecessary, almost all of them because athletes are volunteering themselves as buffoons.
Just Thursday, the NFL suspended Ravens running back Ray Rice because he assaulted his fiancée; Jaguars receiver Justin Blackmon was busted for marijuana (yet again); two Texas Longhorns were arrested for sexual assault; and Padres outfielder Cameron Maybin began serving a 25-game suspension for PEDs.
There is a similar sad rap sheet, almost daily, throughout sports.
Handling distractions is part of what coaching has become.
A major one, Bullygate, swallowed the Dolphins’ 2013 season because a few knucklehead Neanderthals were loose in the locker room. Now, as Miami opens training camp on Friday, Joe Philbin will be answering questions about the suspension of former No. 1 draft pick Dion Jordan for using a banned substance.
These are all avoidable distractions by athletes who voluntarily did wrong.
Then again, if you believe being gay is a chosen “lifestyle,” not to mention a sin, perhaps you think Michael Sam falls into the same category.
Something I have not heard in this week’s Dungy/Sam palaver that bears emphasizing here as well is that Michael Sam is a good distraction, a positive one, a distraction America needs to experience. Distraction is a cousin of attention and discussion, and all of that falling on this otherwise obscure St. Louis Rams rookie is a good thing.
Besides, if Sam himself isn’t unduly distracted by this, who are the rest of us to be?
Most NFL distractions are silly or dumb.
This one is important, and righteous. It is necessary. Somebody had to be first. And, like all of the greatest distractions we have experienced in America, this one serves to illuminate, to open eyes, to make us better.
What a distraction it must have been in the 1910s when women in this country were protesting for the simple right to vote, just like men.
What a distraction it must have been in 1947 when the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball.
What a distraction it must have been in 1955 when Rosa Parks dared to sit where she wished on a city bus in Montgomery, Ala.
What a distraction it is in 2014 when a man who happens to be openly gay is trying to make it in the NFL.
This is a distraction Dungy and plenty of others might want to avoid, but it’s a distraction America should embrace and, if we’re lucky, maybe learn from.