By David Whitney
July 24, 2014
The Rams open training camp Friday and the rules of engagement regarding Michael Sam have been set. Let’s call it them the Dungy Rules.
Rule No. 1 - You must be 100 percent positive in commenting about Sam. If not, you’d better hire a skywriting plane to spell “NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT” above Rams Park.
The phrase was made famous in a 1993 Seinfeld episode, when a reporter suspected Jerry and George were gay. Their denial raised fears being called homophobes, so they added the catchphrase to fend off the dreaded charge of political incorrectness.
Rule No. 2 - Even if you abide by Rule No. 1, critics still won’t believe you.
With that in mind, the requisite disclaimer: I love gay people. I have gay friends and family members. I hope Sam excels in the NFL since it would help gays everywhere. I also think, as Sam does, that being gay shouldn't cut him any slack in the NFL.
There, that should buy me an extra 0.2 seconds before the “Dear Skinhead” emails start arriving.
It’s simply unacceptable to deviate from the media-run party line. Dungy inadvertently did this week, and one of America’s most admired and respected men was instantly turned into Donald Sterling.
The Tampa Tribune’s Ira Kaufman did a long story Sunday on the NFL’s evolving locker-room culture. The first comment was from Dungy, who said he wouldn’t have drafted Sam because of the distraction it would bring.
Dungy based his comment partially on the Oprah Winfrey Network postponing a planned Sam documentary because of fears it would be a… drumroll, please… distraction! That has not washed with media watchdogs.
“Somebody should tell him what a phony he looks like when he blames this on a reality series that Sam and his people had talked about doing with Oprah Winfrey’s television network, and acting as if that was in play when he made his chowderhead comments about Sam,” Mike Lupica wrote in the New York Daily News. “Does he really think he could get by with that as some kind of excuse?”
A little reporting would discovered that Dungy made the comment in May, right after the documentary was called off. Kaufman held the quote because he didn’t think it was five-alarm fire material.
Other coaches and commentators had said NFL teams would include the distraction factor in their evaluation of Sam. The difference is Dungy is a devout Christian.
Media translation: He just hate gays.
They read all sorts of deviousness into one sentence. Dungy was labeled a coward, a traitor to his race, unfit for his job at NBC and, of course, “World’s Worst Sports Person,” by Keith Olbermann.
The chorus pointed out that Dungy tolerated distractions like Warren Sapp with the Bucs and endorsed the return of dog-killer Michael Vick.
And what if Branch Rickey had let distractions keep him from playing Jackie Robinson?
All true, but it missed Dungy’s point.
“I know a lot of people try to make this about my Christian faith,” he said on the Dan Patrick radio show. “But I think people should recognize you have a responsibility to deliver a good football team to the owner, and do everything you can to do that.”
He even said it would be a sin not to. And you know how Dungy feels about sinning.
He tolerated Sapp because he was a Hall of Fame tackle. Vick was Pro Bowl quarterback.
Sam was the eighth-to-last player taken in the draft and it’s iffy he’ll even make the team.
It’s hard for some in the media to believe, but coaches are hired to win, not advance social causes. The better a player is, the more slack they get.
“For people to say that’s not part of the evaluation process is naïve,” Dungy said.
Any chowderhead who’s spent five minutes in a locker room also knows football coaches are control freaks. Anything that might distract their team – media, travel, the wrong color Gatorade – makes them paranoid.
Yet some critics claimed the distraction thing is overblown (tell that to Oprah) or non-existent. These are the same people who slavishly noted how the traveling Tim Tebow Circus might have rendered him unworthy of the hassle he’d have brought to teams.
Dungy and a lot of others said Jonathan Martin faced the same dilemma last fall.
“If you substitute Jonathan Martin for Michael Sam and had the same quotes and same comments, nobody is replaying those quotes two months or three months later,” Dungy said.
They apparently would have if Martin were gay. The irony is that Sam has proclaimed he wants to be treated like any other player, yet the media and many fans insist he should be get special treatment. After April’s draft, almost every analyst who brought up Sam’s potential drawbacks (size, strength and – gads –distraction potential) was talking on eggshells.
If Sam has a bad game, reviewers better make clear their critiques are based strictly on football and not the fact they might have voted against gay marriage in 2007. And you can already hear the second-guessing if the Rams end up cutting Sam.
Dungy has said all along he hopes that doesn’t happen. He’s said his religious beliefs would never keep him from drafting Sam. He’d like to reach out and meet Sam after this week’s firestorm.
“Hopefully I’ll get the chance,” Dungy said. “I want to wish him the best and know I have no bitterness or animosity toward him. Even thought I don’t agree with his lifestyle, I love him and wish him the best.”
“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,” wrote Washington Post columnist Cindy Boren.
In other words, Dungy is not telling the truth. People have accused Dungy of a lot of things, but being a liar has never been one of them.
At least until this week, when we learned how the media knows more about Dungy than Dungy knows about himself.
“People do react, and that’s fine,” he said. “I just wish they’d react to the facts and what I said, and not what they believe and what they perceive.”
That’s apparently not possible with this issue. So as Sam embarks on what we hope will be a long and fruitful NFL career, everybody better be aware of the Dungy Rules.
A routine comment can now be labeled hate speech, and a decent man’s character can be assassinated in an instant.
To paraphrase Seinfeld, there’s something very wrong with that.
David Whitley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or follow him on Twitter at @DEWhitley.
9:05 a.m. EDT, July 23, 2014
7:46 p.m. EDT, July 22, 2014
12:38 a.m. EDT, July 23, 2014