A Flaw to Tony Dungy’s Point: Michael Sam “Distraction” Was Disproven By Missouri Tigers

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Former Super Bowl-winning NFL coach Tony Dungy is entitled to his opinion, including on St. Louis Rams draft pick Michael Sam.

It’s imperative that be made clear up front, because there seems to exist in the discourse of the day this pervasive idea that disagreement is tantamount to stifling opposing viewpoints.

Such is the nature of political conversation in our country, which isn’t so much conversation as it is slamming ones head against a wall and whomever yields first is labeled the loser. And make no mistake, the Michael Sam conversation is a socio-political one.

Others have more adeptly examined what Tony Dungy said to the Tampa Tribune, which comes down to little more than a two paragraphs:

“I wouldn’t have taken him,” said former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy, now an analyst for NBC. “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.”

Dungy issued a statement today clarifying his position on Sam’s opportunity to play in the NFL, which isn’t different than his original stance.

At no point does Dungy advocate Michael Sam’s exclusion from the NFL, but his clarification reiterates his “distraction” stance.

As Dungy told the Tampa Times, things will indeed happen–and not necessarily of Sam’s doing. Because he’s the first openly gay, active football player, he will command attention. That’s unavoidable when dealing with a trailblazer.

There is also the possibility of conflict with teammates of the mindset former LSU running back Alfred Blue expressed (and later recanted) in 2013. Blue told the LSU student newspaper, The Daily Reveille:

“Football is supposed to be this violent sport — this aggressive sport that grown men are supposed to play. Ain’t no little boys out here between them lines. So if you gay, we look at you as a sissy. You know? Like, how you going to say you can do what we do and you want a man?”

But then, the possibility of conflict exists between any two people for an number of reasons. That in and of itself is a rather weak argument. Somehow, someway, Sam managed to only exist, but actually flourish as part of a football locker room without “things” happening, and that’s where Dungy’s point loses steam.

Remove the larger social implications and boil Tony Dungy’s point down to a pure football idea, and it’s fundamentally flawed. Dungy’s idea that Michael Sam is a distraction whose sexual orientation might keep a team from winning games is demonstrably false.

The Missouri Tigers went into the 2013 season decided underdogs in the SEC, picked to finish sixth in the East. Yet with Sam as the team’s leader, Missouri went one overtime loss from running the table in the regular season and appeared in the SEC Championship Game.

The Tigers capped the year with their program record-tying 12th win, a Cotton Bowl defeat of Oklahoma State–a victory Michael Sam helped seal when his sack of Cowboys quarterback Clint Chelf forced a fumble that Missouri teammate Shane Ray returned for a touchdown.

Missouri’s team celebration at the conclusion of the Cotton Bowl was the culmination of a season-long bond wherein the Tigers didn’t necessarily rally around Sam–Sam rallied as a teammate.

Head coach Gary Pinkel talked about Missouri’s closeness at last week’s SEC media days. Interestingly, one of the words he chose was “handle.” Per the Opelika-Auburn News:

“I’m proud of our football program, our athletic department. Infrastructure. I think we talk about respect all the time for people. So I thought that and a number of things that we do internally with our athletic department and football, gave us an opportunity to be able to handle something like that, maybe different than somebody else would have been able to handle us.

“It also tells a lot for the closeness of the team.”

The Tigers received several sportsmanship awards for their “handling” of a teammate who also just happened to be the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. The praise coming Missouri’s certainly indicates that the opinion Dungy is very much entitled is also not exclusive.

But Pinkel said he hopes in the near future, it will no longer be praise-worthy for a team to “handle” a gay teammate like Sam. Coaches won’t have to wring their hands about the possibility that “things can happen” with a gay player any more than they fret over the “things” other players might be doing.

And maybe, these teams will experience the same kind of success the Missouri Tigers achieved in a 2013 season that begin with such low expectations.