Keith Strudler: God, Football And Righteousness
If football is truly a religion, making an NFL roster is some kind of sainthood. It is to fly amongst the angels, gods in pads and helmets.
Michael Sam may not yet be deity, but he certainly is close. A 7th round draft pick by the St. Louis Rams, the defensive lineman from the University of Missouri stands to be the first openly gay man on an NFL roster, a gay priest of sorts.
This process will play out in the course of several weeks, as teams cut their rosters to the 53 player max by the end of the preseason in September. Until then, it’s a process of hurry up and wait, amidst what will inevitably be a crescendo of press noise, both because the story sells and with the steadfast acknowledgment that they may in fact be covering true history, not the normal historical record keeping of wins and losses.
Thanks to Tony Dungy, the calm is over, if it ever did truly exist. The former NFL head coach, the first African American to lead his team to a Super Bowl ring, recently said that he would not have drafted Sam on his team because it would be a distraction. He added that things will happen, which is hard to decipher in context.
This quickly went from off-the-cuff commentary to front page news in quick work for a variety of reasons, and not simply because modern media technology affords that expediency. It’s partly because Dungy has long been deemed the voice of righteousness and redemption, preaching the importance of young men living lives of honor. He famously counseled Michael Vick upon his return to football when few others dared. It’s also because as an African American sports pioneer, it’s assumed he’d realize the importance of trailblazing, even if it is a distraction as he termed it. And it’s because people assume that given Dungy’s work as an NFL studio host for the past several years, he should know better than to pontificate out loud.
This is all complicated by Dungy’s past support of the Indiana Family Institute, who staunchly opposes gay marriage, amongst other things. Throughout his public life, Dungy has made no qualms of his religious devotion; for perhaps the first time, Dungy has seen the potential drawback of his stalwart conviction.
Dungy has since amended, or at least clarified his remarks. He noted that Sam absolutely deserved a chance to play in the NFL and should be judged on his merits alone; and his commentary was simply a recognition of the challenge in managing a football team free of the invasive noise that can dismantle their singularity of purpose. Even if that does make some sense, although not really, it rings fairly hollow from someone who proclaims sport to be part of a larger calling. You can’t be selective in righteousness, because that is, by definition, bigotry.
It’s not worth debating whether Dungy was wrong in his remarks, because he was. Nor should we assess what kind of person Dungy is, because any singular comment does not a man make. At the very least, we can say that like anyone, Tony Dungy is complicated, which is probably more fair than the unwavering platitudes draped on his shoulders for the better part of a decade. Perhaps now, Tony Dungy can be more than a silhouette, but instead a real person.
The bigger issue is this. Dungy, like Tim Tebow, has been deemed an unquestioned force of good in sport because of his steadfast devotion to God. Because he lives a religious life and deems himself a Christian first, that makes him by default all that’s right with the game.
Football itself has embraced that ideal, celebrating his religious overtones on and off the field, including the hazy line between his personal and professional life, something that’s not privileged in most workplaces. In a league of deviance, Tony Dungy was a man of God.
Only thing is, pro sports shouldn’t confuse devout with righteous. As a religious person myself and someone who’s benefited from faith, I know that religious does not mean good any more than atheist means bad. This is the same mistake small Texas towns make in demanding prayer in the locker room.
So when everyone acts surprised that such a good guy like Tony Dungy might have said something like that about Michael Sam, at least consider why we assumed Dungy to be faultless in the first place. He is, like everyone else on this planet, simply a man. Contrary to popular belief, being religious, nor even playing football, does not truly makes you a God.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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