When Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the most recent NFL draft, it was seen as very big, very important news. Sam was the first openly gay football player to declare for the NFL draft, and to be drafted. If he makes the team, he’ll be the first openly gay player in the NFL. And the Rams’ decision to draft Sam was seen as a wonderful thing, a step towards inclusiveness and openness and the overcoming of homophobia. And Sam’s courage in coming out was seen as a positive sign, suggesting that professional athletes in general and football players in specific (who, fairly or not, were seen as particularly benighted in this regard) were changing, that attitudes, at least, were more welcoming to the LGTB population than would likely have been the case only ten years ago, when Kwame Harris was drafted by the 49ers.
On Sunday, Tony Dungy, the much-respected former Colts’ head coach, who now works as a TV analyst, said he would not have drafted Sam. “I 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. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.” Tuesday, Dungy offered this clarification:
“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. 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.”
Despite this clarification, Dungy has come under attack. Intemperate comments on social media suggested that Dungy should be fired from his job at NBC Sports. Even more vitriolic tweets speculated whether James, Dungy’s son, who killed himself in 2005, may have been gay, and that his suicide may have been because he was rejected by his father. Dungy is an evangelical Christian, and has publicly opposed marriage equality, though not since 2007. Dungy is also one of the most respected figures in the entire NFL. He has consistently reached out to troubled players, and is credited by many for making a difference in the lives of young men, in football, who have made poor life choices.
This gets tricky, because this whole situation was exacerbated by a particularly inflammatory post by a well-known conservative blogger. Ordinarily, I link to any source I cite. In this case, though, I refuse to. I will not be party to driving traffic to his site. Nor will I even tell you his name. His initials are MW. Some of you probably know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, let me leave it at this: in my opinion, he’s not worth your time.
Anyway, this whole thing has kind of blown up. Sports talk radio won’t let go of it, and neither will the underground world of sports and political bloggers. I don’t particularly want to add to the noise. Let me make a few points:
1) Michael Sam has handled the whole controversy with humor and class. His initial comment on it was some variation on ‘I’m glad he’s not my coach!’ Later, he clarified, tweeting “Everyone in America is entitled to his own opinion.” Other than that, he’s stayed out of it. He’s trying to make the Rams’ roster. That’s tough enough.
2) Coaches hate distractions. Coaches want their players totally, 100% focused on the immediate task in hand; winning football games. For Dungy to say ‘I wouldn’t want a player who is likely to be surrounded by media distracting my team’ is not, in a football context, terribly unusual. Jeff Fisher, the Rams’ coach, who will make the decision regarding whether Sam makes the Rams’ roster, says he thinks Sam won’t be a distraction. Fine: different coaches, different perspectives.
3) There are good reasons to think that Michael Sam will be a very good professional football player, and just as good reasons to think he might struggle. Oddly enough, this question has become politicized in this discussion. Not wanting to take too much of a shovel to the MW cesspool, let me say that the question of Sam playing in the NFL has little to do with politics. Sam was the defensive player of the year in the toughest football conference in all of college football. That suggests that he might be a remarkable talent, and a fine professional player. He was also distinctly unimpressive in the NFL combine. This doesn’t mean all that much. Joe Montana’s throwing arm was thought to be inadequate coming out of combine workouts. Emmitt Smith was too slow. Sam Mills was too small. They’re all in the Hall of Fame. Sam might be a star. He might not make the team. If he makes the Rams, it will be because Jeff Fisher thinks he’s good enough to play. That will be the only criterion, as it should be.
4) A well-nigh perfect comparison for Sam might be Tim Tebow. Like Sam, Tebow was a brilliant college football player. He was also known for things that had nothing to do with football (in Tebow’s case, his work as an evangelical missionary in Africa, and his very public embrace of a kind of muscular Christianity). But Tebow’s talents did not translate well to the NFL, and his career has been short, and is now likely over. We don’t know, of course, but if Sam doesn’t make the team (and he might not), it will be for football reasons.
5) This whole controversy is so immensely dispiriting. Tony Dungy was asked a football question, and gave a football answer. To accuse him of homophobia without cause seems unfortunate. Why does everything in society have to be politicized? Why does everyone have to take a side on issues like this one; why does this have to become another battlefield in the cultural wars?
Michael Sam was a superb college football player who may or may not be a good fit in the NFL. Tony Dungy was a wonderful coach, a good man, a committed Christian, and a conservative male who, approaching 60, may not be entirely comfortable with gay people. (And we don’t even know that). Let’s all stop shouting and tweeting and opining, and let the kid play football, and let Dungy do what he does brilliantly, comment on football games. Can’t we figure out a way to get along?