Tim Tebow, Michael Sam, and the NFL 'Distraction' Double Standard
One of the benefits to NBC in posting rather than broadcasting Tony Dungy’s apology is that there’s no risk in the cameraman clumsily panning back to reveal the machine gun pointed at the Sunday Night Football analyst’s head.
NBC didn’t have to explicitly tell the former Colts and Bucs coach, “Say you are sorry or we will turn you into Craig James.” But is there any doubt they would have Mark Jacksonned Tony Dungy had he not issued the obligatory “clarification”?
It’s not an apology that Dungy should have to apologize for. He explicitly stood by the main gist of his comments to the Tampa Tribune—he wouldn’t have drafted gay pass rusher Michael Sam because of the circus that follows him—but said sorry for contributing to that circus in his remarks. Fair enough.
Still, constant cowering fosters a chilling effect. Enthusiasts of Michael Sam haven’t won an argument here. They’ve prevented one. The attitudinal pressure to conform all outlooks to view public declarations of sexuality as cause for celebration weighs so heavily that even a statement as common as a negative evaluation of a gridiron prospect, and emanating from as revered a figure as Tony Dungy, somehow screams evidence of raging homophobia. The socialization at work here conditions rather than provokes thought. It’s the secular equivalent of the forced conversion.
It’s hard to respect a cry for any right that comes at the expense of the right to vote (Massachusetts gay marriage), the right to free speech (Craig James), and the right to pursue a living (Brendan Eich). Similarly, taking seriously charges of bigotry from those embodying its definition—narrow-minded people reflexively intolerant towards difference—is to not take oneself seriously. One of the great magic tricks of the age involves the incessant use of “bigot” to mask one’s own bigotry. They demand tolerance, diversity, and civility. They demonstrate the opposite.
Coaches have dubbed players more talented than Michael Sam a distraction without it becoming so, well, distracting. At least Dungy didn’t use the worn-down word in saying that the gay pass rusher would keep football out of focus. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll called Tim Tebow a “distraction” for the New York Jets in 2012. Then Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Mike Mularkey labeled Tebow a “distraction.” Even outgoing Jets special teams coach Mike Westoff tagged Tebow a—you guessed it—“distraction.”
Nobody called them bigots (or even unoriginal) for this opinion. Nobody demanded that their employers terminate them. Nobody attacked their dead relatives. Observers of the ultimate team sport, in which we don’t even get a clear look at the faces of the competitors during games, just concluded that standard operating procedure in the NFL involves a fixation on football. A month before an out homosexual player came along, Deadspin writer Drew Magary, who doesn’t much care for the NFL monomania with “distraction,” wrote: “I think we can all agree that football teams—as well as many football coaches, fans, and media members—do NOT care for ‘distractions.’”
Perhaps the pigskin coaching profession’s obsession with distractions has itself distracted them from more important stuff. And it’s a fair point for Sam’s supporters to invoke Dungy championing the cause of dog-murdering distraction Michael Vick. But it’s not as though the term came about as a code word to derail the NFL career of Michael Sam.
Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, an expert in distraction, imagines that this may be the case. “And to try and pawn it off and say, ‘Well, I think it'll be too much of a distraction,’” the litigious leg man tells Deadspin, “that really is just an underhanded way of saying, ‘I don’t want to deal with a homosexual player on my team and I’m going to do whatever possible not to have to deal with that situation.’”
Or, alternatively, it just might be Dungy’s way of saying that an undersized, weak, fast-twitch bereft, second-best defensive end on the University of Missouri really isn’t worth a Sports Illustrated cover, a reality television show, a presidential shout-out, and all the hysteria. The louder Sam’s proponents call Dungy a bigot, the more they prove his point that the marginal talent reorients focus from football to something else. It's not Sam's fault. But it's not the fault of 31 NFL GMs to have done what Dungy would have done.
Michael Sam deserves a roster shot just as Tim Tebow deserves a roster spot. Let them play. But understand that what makes them attractive to their respective fan bases makes them repulsive to the coaching fraternity. Field generals are about football. Sam wins fans because of who he sleeps with and Tebow inspires devotion because of his other Sunday activity.
Sure, Tebow played as one of the most exciting players in college football history and Sam performed at an elite level in the SEC this past season. But it’s their love interests—Jesus Christ for the former; that smiley, swimming dude last seen with cake on his face for the latter—that make football fans of those otherwise uninterested.
Meet the new distraction. Same as the old distraction—only different.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America's Game (Regnery, 2013), edits Breitbart Sports.