Jun 17, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Rams defensive end Michael Sam (96) looks on during minicamp at Rams Park. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Tony Dungy, Michael Sam and the Specter of Control

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NFL Head Coaches like to control everything with their team.  Not breaking news, but an important idea to remember in light of Tony Dungy’s quote on Michael Sam.  Essentially Dungy said that he wouldn’t want to have to deal with the distraction created by Michael Sam.  Sam is the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL; he was taken in the 7th round.

Not surprisingly, those that disagree with Tony Dungy (a devout Christian who expressed support of the ban on gay marriage in 2007) have looked to his own status as a minority to make their case against the NBC NFL analyst.  Dungy was the first black NFL Head coach to win a Super Bowl, but before that he was an assistant at  his alma mater (the University of Minnesota) looking to move to the pros.  Chuck Knoll, deceased owner of the Steelers, gave Dungy an opportunity as a defensive back coach.  An opportunity that may have been declined if Knoll and the rest of the Pittsburgh coaching staff had adopted a similar attitude of “avoiding distractions” that Dungy proffered in his Tampa Tribune interview.

Moreover, Dungy helped mentor Mike Vick during his prison stint.  The mentorship was invaluable to Vick, and Dungy advocated for the quarterback’s second chance in the NFL.  It was, in part, due to Dungy’s advocating for Vick that got him back into the league.  If Tony Dungy, a man revered for his football acumen and strong moral compass could forgive and (indeed) campaign for the fallen signal-caller, certainly a team could take a chance on him.

Indeed, it is precisely because of Dungy and his reputation as a nice, fair-minded ethical pillar for the game of football that the comments seem to resonate as cognitive dissonance for some fans.  It is always important to remember that while Dungy has been a fantastic ambassador for the NFL (and a mentor to many athletes), he has been a stalwart in the church. And undoubtedly that spiritual relationship tinges his comments regarding Michael Sam.

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It is also important to remember that Dungy made these comments about Michael Sam, not about some generic gay player.  The reigning Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year’s stock dropped precipitously after his combine and Pro Day performances.  Inherent in the comments is the idea that Sam’s distraction comes with an arguably middling talent.  And the distraction Dungy referenced isn’t completely without Sam’s aid; following his late-round draft selection, Sam informed the St. Louis Rams that he had signed a deal with the Oprah Winfrey Network to be in a reality show.  Even a high-level draft prospect would struggle with scrutiny in an equivocal position.  Remember the NFL had to craft rules to gently nudge NFL teams to participate in the acclaimed Hard Knocks series, how do you think it played when the Rams found out Sam came with his own TV crew?

Former Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Former Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ultimately Sam decided not to do the show, and to just focus on making the team; just like ultimately this conversation shouldn’t just be about homosexuality in the NFL.  Certainly the integration into the sport is a part of it, but the Jackie Robinson comparison has been a reach.  While Sam is similarly a pioneer, the environment he is stepping into is less treacherous than the society Robinson fought to be accepted by.

Dungy’s comments are about a myriad of things (including Sam’s sexuality in the NFL).  They show the hyper-control that coaches have expressed a desire for regardless of who the players found attractive. Johnny Manziel was similarly reprimanded for going to clubs in his free time.  Tim Tebow was arguably run out of the League because of all the outside noise that came with him.  In the NFL, vanilla is King. Anything that is different and fodder for the media (ever the enemy to coaches) is perceived as a threat. Michael Sam was the 249th pick, obviously this is a league-wide ideology; one that has been pervasive for years and doesn’t show any signs of relenting. Dungy illuminated the idea that variables (in this case, player interaction in addition to media focus) are the devil, and the coach’s job is to control the details.

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Tags: Coaching Control Johnny Maziel Michael Sam NFL Time Tebow Tony Dungy

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