If Tony Dungy had kept the narrative to football in discussing why he wouldn't have drafted Michael Sam, he would have been a lot better off. But as he so often does, Dungy took this particular moment to make a football story about more than football -- and not necessarily in a good way.
"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.’’
That's what former NFL defensive back and head coach Tony Dungy told Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune when asked about the prospects for rookie defensive end Michael Sam. Of course, Sam is the league's first openly gay player, and though many league executives and players may feel exactly that way, Dungy may feel the courage to speak to his own views more convincingly. He's a deeply religious man with a desire to evangelize and help others in his own way -- he's written several best-selling books about those beliefs, and he speaks publicly quite often, aside and apart from his current position as an NFL analyst for NBC Sports.
However, there are times when Dungy's beliefs -- especially as a public figure -- have put him in hot water with some groups. In 2007, he accepted a "Friend of Family" award from the Indiana Family Institute, a conservative organization, while he was the head coach of the Colts.
"I appreciate the stance they're taking, and I embrace that stance," Dungy said of the group's efforts to roll back a proposed gay marriage amendment. "We're not trying to downgrade anyone else. But we're trying to promote the family -- family values the Lord's way."
"I have not watched it," Dungy said of one particularly profane spot during the Jets' turn at the HBO "Hard Knocks" series in 2010. "I've gotten the reports. I'm disappointed with all the profanity. I think Rex can make his points without all that.
"Personally, I don't want my players to be around that. I don't want to be around that. If I were in charge, I wouldn't hire someone like that."
Never mind that Ryan is one of the most inventive and successful defensive minds of his generation, his spotty record as a head coach notwithstanding. It seems that for all his good works, if you don't do things Tony Dungy's way, you won't be doing them with Tony Dungy in any fashion.
The first irony of Dungy's comments about Sam is that if he had kept the narrative to football, he would have been a lot better off. Sam, the co-SEC Defensive Player of the year in 2013, didn't have specifically impressive tape that would allow the majority of evaluators to project him as a high-round pick at the next level. Too small to be a true defensive tackle and not quick enough around the edge to be a full-time defensive end, Sam was one of the Rams' four seventh-round draft picks because he's a hybrid player without a defined position. Whatever reasons other teams may have had for passing, Sam's tape had third-day all over it. And if Dungy had said that Sam's athletic potential wasn't worth the headaches, as others have, that would have been a different story.
But as he so often does, Dungy took this particular moment to make a football story about more than football -- and not necessarily in a good way. And in this light, his comments about Johnny Manziel last September bear closer scrutiny.
"I think he’s a special player," Dungy said of Manziel on the Dan Patrick Show. "I think he makes other guys around him better -- he excites his team. I like Johnny Manziel. [Former Chiefs general manager] Scott Pioli mentioned on our pre-game show some off-the-field things -- that’s what you’ve got to figure out ... you don’t want the leader of your franchise, the face, to have questions off the field. But I like him as a player."
Actually, Manziel has far more questions off the field than Sam does, except for that one little thing. Teams have openly questioned Manziel's commitment to football and whether that commitment will allow him to completely mine the ore of his talents. But evidently, that's OK.
It was just as OK when Dungy commented again on Manziel in February.
"He is productive, he's a winner," Dungy told Dallas radio station KTCK. "He's a guy that excites his teammates. He gets the most out of everybody around him. That's what you're looking for in a quarterback. But is he talented enough? Can you win with him? Is he going to make plays in the NFL? Absolutely. Should he be a top-five pick? We'll see how that goes. If I'm committed to winning, I'd take him."
Dungy compared Manziel to Tim Tebow in a football sense, which brings up another interesting comparison in that Tebow brought his share of distractions to his NFL teams. Of course, Tebow is also a devoted Christian who speaks out about his beliefs. He's faced bias and scrutiny because of that, and that's no more fair than limiting professional possibilities for other people because of their sexual orientation. Once the league decided that Tebow's distractions outweighed what he could bring to the field, he was out of the game. That's a fair alternative, and that's what Sam should be allowed to prove -- that he's worth the trouble.
The second -- and more brutal -- irony about Dungy's comments regarding Sam is that those people who were opposed to the integration of professional sports leagues decades ago often used his argument against his predecessors. Nobody wanted black players in the major leagues, it was said, because there would be problems. Things would happen.
And you know what? They were right. There were problems. Things did happen. Jackie Robinson and those like him who took those courageous first steps forward were subject to bigotry and cruelty that we, as a more advanced society, would like to believe we've removed from our hearts and minds.
It's no more right for Tony Dungy to believe that Michael Sam isn't worth hiring because he might be a distraction than it was for the owner of Baseball Team X to believe the same thing about Robinson. Because if that viewpoint had taken the day back then, Tony Dungy would never have played or coached professional football.
Better to listen to Rams general manager Les Snead, who said of the Sam pick that "all of us in the draft room were aware of the magnitude of the decision, how it would be a pivot in history. Michael is the first, but somewhere in the future, guess what? He’s just going to be a name that a kid in middle school has got to memorize. We won’t think it’s anything special because it will be normal."
Or Rams CEO Kevin Demoff, who said that "if you’re going to take a leadership position by drafting Michael, you have to expect the good and the bad. We’re prepared for it, and I think we’ll shine through it."
Will there be complications for Michael Sam and the team that drafted him? Yes.
Will the struggle be worth it? It has always been so through time.
Dungy may be correct, but that doesn't make him right. At all.