Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Thinking Out Loud: Tony Dungy's Irrational Fear of Distractions, Chris Kluwe's Fight

The idea of an openly gay player in a professional sports locker room is one that's been danced around for years. Many have been afraid to discuss it, and while it's unquestionably true that we've had gay professional athletes, none have been willing to come out during their playing careers.

Before going through the combine and the NFL Draft, Missouri linebacker Michael Sam decided it was time to do just that. He came out as gay, saying his teammates knew last season.

You know the rest of this story. The St. Louis Rams took Sam in the seventh round, and he will have a chance to make the team during training camp, which starts this week.

Good thing Tony Dungy wasn't in Jeff Fisher's spot.

"I wouldn't have taken him,'' Dungy told the Tampa Bay Tribune. “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."

Keep in mind: Dungy blazed a trail for African Americans to become head coaches in the NFL. He wasn't the first, but he was one of the most successful, and his presence made a huge difference for those who thought the NFL was not providing African Americans the opportunity to become head coaches.

Dungy is a man who stared racism down and persevered despite it.

Sam is blazing a different kind of trail, and Dungy says that trail is too distracting to a team.

That tells you all you need to know about the NFL and its priorities.

Michael Sam's gay. That's a distraction.

Ray Rice drags his fiancee around a casino, and that isn't.

Take it away, Mike Freeman.
Unfortunately, Dungy isn't alone, but Dungy is supposed to know better. He's supposed to be a leader, a man of principal, a man who knows the sting of bigotry. Quite simply, he's supposed to understand.

... Dungy should know better, but he is clearly a good man with a weak spot. Imagine if an NFL team, when Dungy came into football, decided not to draft him because they wouldn't want to "deal with all of it" by picking a black man. Or if Dungy's hero, Chuck Noll, instead of hiring Dungy as an assistant coach, decided, "You know what, the attention will be negative. I don't want to 'deal with all of it.' "

When Dungy was trying to be a head coach, he was rebuffed in many instances because of the color of his skin. Or other superficial features. The late George Young, who was the general manager of the Giants, once told Dungy (as told in Michael MacCambridge's book America's Game): "I want to help you. I want to see you succeed in this business, and I think you can. But you'll never advance any farther with that beard. It's just not seen in the NFL."

When Dungy told Steelers owner Dan Rooney about Young's words, Rooney said: "In some organizations, that's probably true. But we like people to be themselves."
I like people to be themselves, too. I like Richard Sherman as Richard Sherman. He adds to the experience of watching football. As much as Jermichael Finley's flamboyance drove me nuts at times, it'll be missed in Green Bay if he can't play again. I believe the Vikings will miss Jared Allen's personality, possibly as much as the Bears will appreciate having him around.

Some guys stand out because of their uniqueness. If they're doing their jobs and the team isn't suffering because of that "individuality," there's no reason to think that player is a distraction.

Sure, Finley's gestures after every random catch look stupid if the team is down 30-7 or if the record is 3-9. Same for Allen's calf-roping sack dance. But if the team is winning, it's like a rallying cry.

It's amazing that Dungy -- a well-spoken, intelligent man who went through a lot of crap before he finally got the opportunity he needed to prove himself as a coach -- would so easily dismiss a guy like Sam.

Michael Sam's a distraction, but the guy who was thrown in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring (Michael Vick) deserved a second chance at the NFL.

OK, Tony.

I wonder how Dungy would have handled Chris Kluwe if the two had worked together at any point. There's another story.

Kluwe basically took a live grenade to his NFL career in January, when he penned a piece for Deadspin.com where he alleged he was let go by the Vikings because of his outspoken support for gay marriage. If that wasn't enough, Kluwe threatened to sue the team (and apparently will file that suit on Wednesday) if they didn't release the results of their commissioned investigation that resulted from Kluwe's piece, as well as levy heavy sanctions against the main subject of that story, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer.

The Vikings called Kluwe's bluff. He wasn't bluffing.

Do I think Kluwe is a bit of an attention seeker? Yes. But I also believe he is standing up for something he feels strongly about: gay rights. And he thinks he is still doing that in trying to get the Vikings to change what he insists is a broken culture within the organization and, more specifically, in the locker room.

This isn't a money grab from Kluwe. He said he will donate every dime he may be awarded from the Vikings. It also isn't a ploy to get back in the NFL. Between the Deadspin piece that started all of this in January and the pending lawsuit, Kluwe knows he's done in the league.

And as the Vikings tried to deflect Kluwe's barbs by leaking word that he had taken part in some ribbing of a Penn State alum on the Vikings' staff (making fun of the Jerry Sandusky scandal), Kluwe went back on the offensive. He said (correctly) that his behavior, while not necessarily right, doesn't justify anything Priefer is alleged to have said in team settings. Priefer is a leader and held to a higher standard, Kluwe says, and he's right.

Just ask the Miami Dolphins, who fired offensive line coach Jim Turner last year after he was found to be taking part in the bullying of lineman Jonathan Martin.
"The language and behavior as described in the Ted Wells report are against the core values of our organization," Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said in a statement. "After receiving the report, I conducted my own internal review of the facts to determine the appropriate steps for our organization. Jim Turner and Kevin O'Neill are good people who care a great deal about their profession and the players whom they serve, but both exhibited poor judgment at times which led me to this conclusion.

"As owner, I know firsthand of the high-character and dedicated professionals in our building. I believe in our team and know the hard work and sacrifices they make every day on the field and in the community. However, this is an opportunity and a teaching moment not only for the coaches, staff and players in our locker room, but also for participants throughout sports."
I don't know if Priefer should have been fired, but the results of this Vikings investigation -- even our limited knowledge from that report -- make it clear that locker-room behavior continues to be a problem for the NFL.

Guys are going to kid around, have fun, and get on each other's nerves. But there has to be a line where words and actions start to genuinely offend people. And those people have to be encouraged to speak up, not ripped limb from limb when they do.

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