Former NFL coach Tony Dungy is getting rightly ripped for his comments saying that he wouldn't have drafted openly gay lineman Michael Sam because he didn't want to deal with the distraction. Dungy has been lambasted by columnists and fans nationwide and the heat got so bad that Dungy was forced to issue a public explanation.
It's great that the halo has been ripped from Dungy, who often acts like he's a moral sage who always Does The Right Thing. Dungy has always been active against gay rights and Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz zeroed in perfectly on Dungy's discomfort with Sam and that it has nothing to do with "distractions."
Dungy talks about the distraction, how things could possibly go awry with a gay player in the locker room, but I tend to think this has less to do with distractions and everything to do with his personal disapproval of Sam's sexuality.
So while I celebrate people taking Dungy to task, let's not overly congratulate ourselves. Dungy's view is far from alone in the NFL and I think his views on Sam being a distraction might be a majority one among the league's front-office people.
Michael Sam was the co-defensive player of the year in the SEC and he was taken in the seventh round. There are only seven rounds in the draft. He was taken 249th by the St. Louis Rams and there are only 256 selections. Sam was bypassed by all 32 teams, many of them with a need for a pass rusher, for 97% of the draft and came within an hour of not being drafted at all. The Rams had four extra picks in this draft, which gave them the luxury of taking a chance on Sam and saving the NFL from a giant embarrassment.
Prior to the draft, Sports Illustrated ran an article chock full of anonymous quotes from current and former NFL personnel people, all of whom brought up the distraction angle. This one is representative:
If Sam is among that group of players, the potential distraction of his presence -- both in the media and the locker room -- could prevent him from being selected.
"That will break a tie against that player," the former general manager said. "Every time. Unless he's Superman. Why? Not that they're against gay people. It's more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'"
Last week, Sam was given the Arthur Ashe award for courage at the ESPYs, a moment that left many in tears. Let's think about that for a second. What "courageous" thing did Sam do? Save a bunch of kids from a fire? Disarm an attacker? No, he simply declared his sexual orientation as a professional athlete, and that -- even in 2014 and even despite all the progress that has been made on gay rights -- is still considered brave enough to warrant an award on national TV.
This tells me that the Dungy's of the world are more representative than we would like to think. It's just that these days, people in the league keep those views to themselves (hence everyone in the Sports Illustrated piece being anonymous). On this issue I think the players are miles ahead of management. Discomfort with gays has not gone away, it's simply gone underground. That in itself is progress, but until being openly gay in sports elicits little more than a shrug, there is still a lot of work to be done.
I'm glad Dungy said what he did because the more this issue gets discussed, the more the groundwork is being laid for it to be OK. The Rams have been nothing but 100% supportive of Sam and it is clear he has as much chance of making the team as anyone else in camp. The team has easily swatted away the distractions, managed the situation and allowed Sam to sink or swim as a player. Just like it should be.