Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but when your opinion carries as much weight as Tony Dungy's does, you have to be careful about how you wield it.
The harm in what Dungy has said about Michael Sam lies not in his motivation for saying it, but in the impact it could have on the league, the player and the players who would follow in Sam's footsteps. Dungy's words -- and the fact that it was someone as respected as he is who said them -- serve to legitimize one of the excuses teams might have had, and might still have, for not employing an openly gay player. And that's not going to help the progress that Sam is bravely working to help achieve.
"I wouldn't have taken him," Dungy said of Sam, the openly gay linebacker the St. Louis Rams selected in the seventh round of May's NFL draft, at some point in the past two months. "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 doesn't really matter when Dungy said what he said to the Tampa Tribune's Ira Kaufman, or even why. The whole thing got consumed Tuesday by a he-said/he-said blizzard that obscured the real issue. And in trying to explain himself, Dungy crystallized the problem at the heart of what he'd said in the first place.
"I do not believe Michael's sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization," Dungy said in a statement released Tuesday. "I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately, we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction."
Dungy should feel badly about the remarks, but he should stop throwing around that word "distraction," because it's code for a systemic NFL problem.
In the NFL of 2014, every single team is operating at the center of a media circus every time it plays or even practices. The amount of attention NFL teams and players get is ludicrous, and it would be even if Sam had never made his announcement or been drafted by the Rams. Teams whose coaches and players can handle distractions succeed. Teams whose coaches and players can't handle distractions fail.
Yet, the "distraction" myth persists, and the reason it does is because it's an easy way for power brokers to justify personnel decisions they might want to make for other reasons. You don't want to sign Tim Tebow because you think he's not good enough to play in the NFL, but you're worried about the reaction from his rabid fan base if you say that? Maybe you let it be known, even if it's through back channels, that you're worried about the "distraction." That you don't want your other players having to deal with all that comes with Tebow's popularity.
It's an accepted part of the NFL culture, but it's a trope that should be outdated. Grim-faced front-office types and analysts throw it around as though they're discussing a disease. Oh no, you can't risk having a "distraction" around when you're about the serious business of trying to win football games.