Tony Dungy is a kind, soft-spoken man who is hard to dislike.
In person, he’ll chat with you like a friend who really cares. And he does care. His history as a fair, even-keeled, thoughtful and winning coach — with the winning at least in part a result of that decency — is evidence.
But when he told Ira Kaufman of the Tampa (Florida) Tribune that, if he still were coaching, he wouldn’t have drafted openly gay defensive lineman Michael Sam, you saw where Dungy’s limits as a man are.
His reason for not wanting Sam on his team had nothing to do with talent or need.
‘‘[It’s] not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play,’’ Dungy said. ‘‘But I wouldn’t want to deal with it all.’’
‘‘It all’’ means the disruption that might come from having the first openly gay man in a sport that isn’t, shall we say, the most enlightened. We get that. Football is about aggression, nastiness, crudeness, barely controlled rage.
But any coach who is a leader can stop all of that in his own locker room. The coach is the king who can make tolerance and civility the norm.
The Miami Dolphins found out last season what can happen when you let bullying, teasing and cruelty become sanctioned in your own house. Quasi-thugs such as Richie Incognito take over.
Dungy, who coached the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title over the Bears in February 2007, could have stopped the hypothetical ostracism of Sam as one of his players like a king making a decree to his serfs. NBA coaches might be pawns of their superstars, but NFL coaches are still emperors. Replaceable parts come each spring in the draft.
So why did Dungy say what he did?
Part of it, no doubt, was just coachspeak: ‘‘We don’t want any distractions, boys! One focus!’’
But the other part comes from his religious beliefs. Indeed, Dungy speaks — like way too many former and current sports people do — as though he is more a man of the cloth than a man of the jock.
It’s ironic as hell that on his podcast called ‘‘All Pro Dad,’’ under the heading ‘‘My Take on Life,’’ Dungy says controversial, clubhouse-dividing and marginally talented quarterback hanger-on Tim Tebow is just a great fellow. (Of course, Tebow is even more of a Bible-thumper than Dungy.)
It’s got to be hard for Tebow, Dungy says, ‘‘not knowing what locker he’s going to be in right now. The advice I have for Tim is be patient, be faithful. The Lord has a good spot for you. He’s going to give you the right situation. Tim’s a winner. . . . Be patient with the Lord to show you that way and be ready to go.’’
Really? The next time the Lord makes an NFL free-agent acquisition, let me know.
Dungy’s lack of concern for Sam springs from a religion-backed belief that homosexuality is a sin, not a life condition.
Funny that a black man wouldn’t see the parallel in the law- and religion-based persecution of blacks in this country for centuries. Sad, too, that a man whose own young son committed suicide wouldn’t realize that ‘‘it all’’ is just a circumstance of you not properly addressing the real issues and difficulties around you.
Dungy made a statement Tuesday and tried to reel it all back in. But the message had been given: Michael Sam, you’re still not wanted in many quarters.