Tony Dungy and Michael Sam

Tony Dungy, a former NFL coach and current NBC analyst, recently said that given the chance to draft Michael Sam he would have passed. Michael Sam is the first openly gay player to be drafted and was recently picked up by the Rams in the 7th round draft.

Tony Dungy felt that bringing in a player such as Sam would have caused too much distraction given the inevitable media presence that would follow. Dungy followed up with, “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.”

Tony-Dungy-Micheal-SamThere are two aspects of this story I find fascinating.

First, Dungy’s comments. In the U.S. Constitution we are granted the right to free speech. On the surface, Dungy’s comments seemed pretty innocuous to me.  Not so to the world of media and social media. Therein, Dungy has been called, a coward, homophobic and worse. I believe the reason why this reaction has been so virulent is because here is a former coach not following the narrative the media, and probably the sport, wants everyone to follow. The narrative being that Michael Sam is a “transformative player” ( not because of his skill but because of his sexual acts) and that we should embrace and support players such as this…regardless of the cost. Because Tony Dungy is not following the narrative he’s being excoriated by the media. Sadly, it is hard to find someone in the media who sill stand up for him. However, if you look at the sports blogs or the comments at the end of the articles about Dungy, there are many people willing to defend and debate the comments he made based upon the merits of his words. The contrast between the media’s reaction and that of the general public is illuminating. Here are just two sample comments that I found:

  • “Let’s face it, political correctness is the primary reason this guy was drafted in the first place. That way the NFL can trumpet how all-inclusive they are. When he gets cut, due to his own inabilities, you’ll see extremists on the left crying discrimination. I don’t blame Tony Dungy in the least. At least he has the courage to voice his opinion.’
  • A coach and team has a “right” to draft players they believe will help them win. As the 249th of 256 players selected, most teams passed on drafting Sam because they believed he was not an NFL quality player. Dungy’s comments related to the disruption the media hype surrounding drafting such a player would be to a team, is probably why many teams chose not to draft a player who most likely would not make their roster. To view Dungy’s comments as discriminatory is a lack of understanding of most teams’ coaching and drafting philosophies

It appears that as much the media is trying to control the narrative, main stream America is not buying or being bullied into it.

Secondly, is the discounting of free association. To keep the conversation relevant to the story, all 32 teams in the NFL have different corporate “personalities.” The type of players that they draft are different based on the people who run the organizations. For years, the Raiders have loved to take players who were non-conformists, while the Patriots like to take players who are smart, efficient and who can thrive under a system. Each team has a different criteria for the players that they pick because they want players who can succeed with their organizations. Clearly players from the Raiders teams would not do well on the Patriots and viceversa .

Just as the media loves to celebrate Michael Sam’s “choice,” should we not also celebrate and honor other peoples and organizations choices as well?

I think the media exemplifies the motto, “We will only celebrate a choice that fits our narrative.” The fact is Michael Sam is not an individual sportsman. He is not a tennis player or golfer. He is joining a team and an organization. As such, for him to be successful he is going to have to adapt his personality and his talents so that he can strengthen that organization. If his conduct becomes detrimental to the core values of the Rams, he will be cut and rightfully so. The fact is the teams in the NFL have a right to create cultures and chose players who will help them win and if they don’t choose a player for whatever reason, shouldn’t we also be as a society be supportive of that decision?

In the past NFL draft there were over 200 players drafted. If you add another 200 signings, 400 college players will be joining NFL teams in the hopes of making it a career. To date, Michael Sam is the only player drafted to discuss his sexual orientation. Michael Sam will make the NFL based on his merits and whether or not he can help his team win. The Rams picked Michael Sam because of his talent and because of its culture.Similarly, other teams passed on Michael Sam because of different criteria and different culture. Let’s honor the freedom of either choice.

This general move toward conformity of thought and discounting the right to self associate holds the seeds of our destruction.  A society is only as free as its citizen’s freedom to voice their opinions without being attacked. We must be free to join groups who align with our individual or organizational philosophies without public ridicule or condemnation.