DENVER — The first African-American head coach in the NFL ruffled some feathers with his comments about the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL this week.
Those comments came from Tony Dungy, a former Super Bowl-winning head coach with the Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and appeared in the Tampa Tribune on Sunday.
When asked whether he would have drafted former Missouri Tiger Michael Sam, an openly gay linebacker who was taken in the seventh round of the NFL Draft this May by the St. Louis Rams, Dungy said he “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,” Dungy told the Tribune. “It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”
Many were critical of Dungy for a number of reasons, not the least of which seemed to deal with brave and difficult crusades Dungy has personally made in the past.
Both as a player and a coach, Dungy experienced racism — going so far as to write a foreword in a book about ending racism in football. When a great deal of his NFL brethren were arguing against it, Dungy was one of few advocating that Michael Vick deserved another shot in the league after being released from prison for a dog fighting conviction.
ESPN TV host Keith Olberman specifically addressed Dungy’s relationship with Vick in offering his criticism, saying “whatever the distractions Michael Vick presented were nothing compared to the distractions Michael Sam might present.”
Olberman didn’t stop there.
“‘I wouldn’t want to deal with it, things will happen,’ is remarkably similar to what football coaches and owners said until 1946 about players who looked like Tony Dungy,” Olberman said. “And it’s remarkably similar to what NFL owners said until 1989 about guys who wanted to become NFL head coaches who look like Tony Dungy. And it’s remarkably similar to what TV executives said until 1966 about men who wanted to broadcast NFL games and coverage who looked like Tony Dungy.””
While the criticism of Dungy was far-reaching, there were also many who stood in his corner, including former Denver Bronco Mark Schlereth, who emphasized that Sam was one of the last players drafted in May.
“Every team passed him up multiple times … based upon his football skills,” Schlereth said of ESPN’s SportsCenter Tuesday morning. “You add those question marks (about his talent) with what Tony Dungy was talking about — the scrutiny and the things you’re going to have to deal with from a distraction standpoint — and there are a lot of teams that feel the exact same way as Tony Dungy. That’s just the reality.”
However, many, including former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason and his CBS radio co-host Craig Carton, have speculated that Sam’s sexuality — not his talent — may have been a big reason the former SEC Defensive Player of the Year fell to the seventh round of the NFL draft.
Statistics may lend a bit of credence to that argument, considering Sam is one of four players out of 54 to have won his respective college football conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award in the last decade and fallen below the sixth round of the NFL draft.
And to suggest Dungy has always been in the majority when it comes to evaluating talent wouldn’t be entirely accurate either.
Despite the fact that many NFL talent evaluators doubted Tim Tebow’s ability to play quarterback entering the 2010 NFL, Dungy said he thought the Heisman trophy winner would be a “great player in the NFL.”
And despite the fact that Tebow hasn’t seen significant playing time since his 2011 season with the Denver Broncos, in which he showed some growing pains throwing the ball but did help the team to a playoff win, and appears poised to spend his second straight season out of football, Dungy went out of his way to issue some personal words of encouragement to the 26-year-old.
“Tim’s a winner,” Dungy said. “He’s a guy that lifts his teammates and lifts the spirits of any team that he’s with.”
Never in his commentary on Tebow has Dungy appeared to mention the idea that others, including Super Bowl-winning head coach Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, former NFL quarterback Jeff Garcia and an unnamed NFL general manager, have said they believe Tebow is exactly what Dungy called Sam — a distraction.
In issuing that message of encouragement to Tebow, a fellow Christian, Dungy leaned on his well-documented faith. Many, including Yahoo columnist Dan Wetzel, suggested that those religious beliefs, which may shun homosexuality, could be the true motivation behind Dungy’s commentary on Sam.
Speaking for the first time since his comments were printed in the Tampa Tribune, however, Dungy insisted that wasn’t the case on Tuesday.
Below is Dungy’s efforts to clarify his earlier comments in its entirety.
On Monday afternoon while on vacation with my family, I was quite surprised to read excerpts from an interview I gave several weeks ago related to this year’s NFL Draft, and I feel compelled to clarify those remarks.
I was asked whether I would have drafted Michael Sam and I answered that I would not have drafted him. I gave my honest answer, which is that I felt drafting him would bring much distraction to the team. At the time of my interview, the Oprah Winfrey reality show that was going to chronicle Michael’s first season had been announced.
I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL. He absolutely does.
I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process. It should not.
I was not asked whether I would have a problem having Michael Sam on my team. I would not.
I have been asked all of those questions several times in the last three months and have always answered them the same way—by saying that playing in the NFL is, and should be, about merit.
The best players make the team, and everyone should get the opportunity to prove whether they’re good enough to play. That’s my opinion as a coach. But those were not the questions I was asked.
What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams.
I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization.
I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.
I wish Michael Sam nothing but the best in his quest to become a star in the NFL and I am confident he will get the opportunity to show what he can do on the field.
My sincere hope is that we will be able to focus on his play and not on his sexual orientation.