Michael Sam, Tony Dungy, and the Opinion That Dare Not Speak Its Name

We talk a good game about embracing other people’s cultures, ethnic backgrounds, sexual preferences, etc. But when it comes to embracing a diversity of opinion, the most important kind of diversity there is, we stink.

The sports media has reminded us of our “bondage of conscience” over the last two days by lashing out at Tony Dungy, essentially for saying what 31 NFL head coaches were obviously thinking during the lead up to the NFL Draft. In an interview with the Tampa Tribune, Dungy said that if he were still an NFL head coach, he wouldn’t have wanted his team to draft on Michael Sam.

“I wouldn’t have taken him,’’ Dungy told the Tampa Tribune. “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.’’

It didn’t take the sports-media thought police long to respond. Within hours, Michael David Smith of ProFootballTalk.com called Dungy’s comments “troubling.” Will Brinson of CBS said Dungy’s remarks were “disappointing” and then went on to chastise him for supporting Michael Vick’s bid to re-enter football after prison, implying that it was hypocritical for the former Tampa Bay and Indianapolis coach to support Vick then but speak out about Sam now. Sander Philipse at Bleacher Report accused Dungy of “anti-gay bigotry.”

Why?

After all, Dungy merely said he wouldn’t want the media-circus distraction of Sam. He didn’t say he wouldn’t want Sam because he was gay. In fact, he made a point of saying that he wasn’t opposed to Sam having a chance to play in the league. So why the backlash?    

The answer is because the sports media has decided to turn Michael Sam into their Jackie Robinson, a fact made plain by CBS’ Gregg Doyel months ago when he wrote:

Michael Sam is a story, one we've been waiting on for years. We in the national media have long anticipated a publicly gay male professional athlete in one of our biggest sports leagues—the NFL, MLB, the NBA—and we almost had one last year when Jason Collins came out. The media fawned over Collins' announcement, and I could pretend that didn't happen but it's like I've already said: Ignoring the facts is no way to go through life. Hell, I was fawning myself. Unabashedly and unapologetically.

So the mostly liberal media has a story that we find not just fascinating, but inspiring. And we're going to write about Michael Sam as much as we can, as I'm doing right here, because it's so fun and new and progressive.

Take these comments, along with the media’s reaction to Jason Collins, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Arizona, their support of Chris Kluwe, and the reaction to Dungy, and it’s clear that gay activism has become the strange new religion of the sports media—a “third rail” that will instantly kill, or greatly injure, the career of any journalist/commentator perceived to stand in its way.

What Doyel could have, even should have, added but didn’t is that now that Michael Sam has made the “mostly liberal media’s” dreams come true, they will do their best to destroy anyone who tries to take the Michael Sam story from them. Tony Dungy merely said that he wouldn’t want the sideshow surrounding Sam, and he’s being vilified--probably to the point where he’s going to be forced by NBC to either outright apologize or walk his comments back.

Will Brinson’s implying Dungy’s hypocrisy for supporting Vick’s comeback bid while spurning Sam was absurd as well. Every NFL team weighs risks vs. reward, or in this case distraction vs. reward, before they take on a player that has off-the-field issues. Michael Vick was a three-time Pro Bowler who had been a number-one overall draft pick and had signed a $100 million dollar contract. Based on that, NFL teams looked at Vick and decided that the distraction/risk of adding him was more than balanced out by the reward of having him.

Michael Sam had one of the worst combines in recent memory, and wasn’t even the best defensive player at the University of Missouri. So, most NFL teams decided that Sam’s distraction/risk was not outweighed by his reward.

What’s so hard for Will Brinson and Michael David Smith to understand about that? If Michael Sam were half the player that Michael Vick was and even is, there’s no way he slips past the fourth round—gay, straight, black, white, dog, cat, whatever.

You don’t think Branch Rickey had more than a few healthy, prolonged risk vs. reward debates before adding Jackie Robinson to the roster and smashing the color barrier? Jackie Robinson stole 29 bases and hit .297 his first year in the big leagues. Branch Rickey made sure that the player he chose to change baseball history could play.

Ultimately, Dungy’s crime wasn’t simply the implication that Sam wasn’t good enough to offset the baggage that would come with him. His real crime was that he reminded every one of the baggage that would come with Sam. He reminded us all that to the media, this story is about much more than Michael Sam. In fact, it’s much more about the media than it is even about Michael Sam. As Gregg Doyel said, “Michael Sam is a story, one we've been waiting on for years.”

This is the Jackie Robinson moment for this generation of sportscasters who have decided to turn the sexuality of a man into a civil rights issue. This is the moment when they can stop writing about 7-foot Eastern Europeans and quick Cuban shortstops, and, in their eyes, write something historically meaningful, something that someone somewhere might remember them for.

Even Gregg Doyel cautioned that “at some point you have to wonder if the overexposure that killed the career of Tim Tebow will do the same to Michael Sam.” The obvious difference here is that the sports media actually wanted to kill the career of Tim Tebow. If Michael Sam’s career face-plants due to media overkill, it’ll be inadvertent collateral damage. But the op-eds, exclusives, and Oprah Winfrey producers will be there regardless of what it means for Sam. Helping Sam in this case would require the media to do the one thing they’re incapable of doing: shutting up.

The other irony in all this, of course, is that it was Dungy, the first black coach to win a Super Bowl, who was hailed as such a proud symbol of diversity not so long ago by many of the same people who are now attacking him. Had Dungy “known his role” as simply being the Super Bowl trailblazer, and never offered an opinion on anything more significant than the intricacies of running the zone blitz out of the 3-4 defense, he would have been fine.

The reason why he offered his opinion is because he believes we have embraced diversity of opinion. The reason why he’s being blasted by over 90% of the sports media today is because we have not.


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