Tony Dungy brazenly exposed the one thing that sports as part of the American cultural landscape as a whole has always clung to as a prime prerogative. He is finding out that it is a prerogative that always ends up looking ugly.
The prerogative is the Talent/Tolerance Equation, and it has under its dome in a wide variety of subsets, including a boss’ autonomy, the right to determine questions outside the purview of the job, the very definition of the word “distraction,” and the ability to bend the truth while getting those to whom one is bending it nod and say, “Well, I can see your point.”
Dungy came out today with a sadly tardy explanation of what he meant to say to the Tampa Tribune’s Ira Kaufman when the topic of Michael Sam came up. His advisers may have failed him here, because in the time it took to craft his 364-word statement, it seemed the story had run away from him, never to be retrieved.
This, for the record, is the statement:
“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.”
Take those words as you wish; your biases pro or con will take you where you are predestined to go. Dungy has to account for his history, as do we all.
But Dungy’s own past stands against homosexuality as well as his years as a coach lead him right into the Talent/Tolerance thicket, the one problem that opens the door to charges of hypocrisy that do not easily go away. Even if you allow him his stand that he has no issue with Sam’s homosexuality (despite his own history with groups who oppose it), and even though he is no longer a coach but a television analyst, the essential unfairness of Talent/Tolerance still crushes him underfoot.
For Dungy, who defended and even offered to mentor Michael Vick after his nationally provocative dog-fighting conviction was not “a distraction,” because he had football gifts still to be exploited. Michael Sam, though, IS a distraction because he is a seventh-round pick who may not last more than a training camp. And the distraction is, as usual, defined as “the media,” which is a particularly bizarre stance for someone who has enjoyed the benefits of positive media coverage as well as membership.
But never mind the media part for a moment. He’s wrong on that, but let’s keep Talent/Tolerance as the focus here, because that’s the real point.
Coaches demand the imperial right to make judgments on their players solely based on whether they can help the coach win games and not be annoyed in doing so. This has always been so, and it will always be so. It doesn’t mesh with the notion of coaches as teachers and character molders, and therefore undercuts whatever moral authority they might claim as theirs, but it is so. They will tolerate whatever is required to get access to the talent they need, period, and that means that drunk driving, substance abuse, spousal abuse and other forms of violence are tolerated in the talented until that nebulous moment that they are not tolerated any longer.
And that’s the real problem here. Coaches cannot and do not want to say the words, “We’re looking the other way because this guy’s good, and we’re being intolerant because this other guy isn’t as good. You don’t like it, tough darts.” They want to hide behind the most powerful unwritten rule there is – What I Feel Like Putting Up With On A Sliding Scale. Talent, and Tolerance.
Dungy tried to defend Talent/Tolerance without saying so, and his decision to avoid dealing with that universal truth now has him being branded by some people as a phony and a homophobe. Neither character descriptor is easily shed.
Perhaps he may find Sam a poor player, or he may find his sexuality immoral, but he didn’t cite either of those things as his reason for not wanting him. He said it was the media’s fault because it would come around in its amorphous blobbery asking players questions and generally hanging around, despite being a sport that controls its media more than any other, from access to even more basic information.
That’s the weak sauce here – that the media, which is typically kept at bay with ease, is the reason why Michael Sam and his teammates cannot get a fair shake and therefore isn’t Dungy’s kind of guy. It’s an excuse, and a cowardly one. Whatever his other beliefs, Tony Dungy ought to be better than resorting to that.
But it’s the overarching Talent/Tolerance thing, and St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher’s scale is different than Tony Dungy’s. He drafted Sam, and presumably he will judge him based on his on-field skills and ability to be part of a team. So far, there is no indication whether he can make the team or that he is a detriment to it, but it has laid waste to Tony Dungy’s reputation along the way, leading a divided nation to a Talent/Tolerance discussion about Dungy. And the whirling circle of cleavers on Talent and Tolerance spins on seemingly forever.