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.
Hogwash. The New England Patriots managed to hobble through training camp just fine last year, and the "distraction" brought on by having Tebow in their midst for one summer affected their preparation so greatly that they only won 12 games and the AFC East en route to an appearance in the AFC Championship Game.
In Sam's case, the silliness carries the stench of bigotry and really has no justification. Michael Sam has not been a distraction to the Rams, who have a good, experienced coaching staff that is managing whatever needs to be managed just fine. The flare-up referenced Tuesday about the Oprah Winfrey Network reality show really shouldn't have been an issue in the first place, and once it was, Sam and the Rams defused it deftly. Dungy's words will have no effect on the Rams, because the Rams are already good with Sam and all that comes with him.
The problem is that Dungy's words can, and likely will, have an effect on other teams and front offices to come. There's little doubt that, somewhere around the NFL, there are people in positions of power who would choose not to pursue an openly gay player for reasons of bigotry and/or fear. Dungy has now publicly offered such people and such front offices a ready-made excuse. If you're a GM or a scouting director who's prejudiced against or scared of the societal progress Sam represents, you're now licensed to pass on him and all who follow him and use the "distraction" issue as your excuse. And when you do, if people want to pick at it and ask you how you can say such a thing, you can now say, "Well, Tony Dungy said it! And everybody respects him!"
The extra that comes with Sam matters in the big picture, and it's a shame that someone in Dungy's position would say something that might affect it negatively. The point of what Sam is doing, and the reason he's doing it publicly, is so that others who find themselves in the same situation in the future can come out and live openly without fear that doing so will keep them from pursuing their dreams. Dungy's words can do damage to that progress, and, for that reason, he shouldn't have said them.
I'm not here to call Tony Dungy a bigot or to dispute his right to say what he wants to say. My point here is that Dungy has a platform and that his words matter to those who work in and follow the NFL. And on an issue such as this, it's important for a person in Dungy's position to understand that and to think about the impact his words have on the world at large. Again, he's welcome to his opinion. He just needs to remember how many people are listening to it.