What Tony Dungy Could Learn from Branch Rickey, History, the Bible and Himself

Former NFL Coach Tony Dungy; AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Former NFL Coach Tony Dungy in Somewhat Less Controversial Days                                      AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Tony Dungy is a good man who deserves to have his comments expressed in context. When he was asked by the Tampa Tribune if he would have drafted Michael Sam in the NFL, the former head coach was honest: I wouldn’t have taken him. 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.’’

In this day and age when even the most tolerant of internet liberals will turn into a pitchfork-wielding bigot, you can bet Dungy’s comments earned him some smack. He made the rounds on television that also didn’t go so well. Things got so bad,  he released a precise statement.

What Dungy doesn’t realize is that his explanation is not logical. It is one based on an antiquated sense of fear. It is a fear that has been disproven time and time again.

The St. Louis Rams are the first NFL team to draft an openly gay player, Michael Sams. Courtesy: ESPN

The St. Louis Rams are the first NFL team to draft an openly gay player, Michael Sam Courtesy: ESPN


In his original comments, Dungy explained that he wouldn’t have drafted Sam because it would have negatively affected his team and its cohesion, and ultimately its performance. This was the same argument used to delay integration of both gays and women in combat. As we now know, gays have been in the military for decades, if no millennia. Women first entered combat unofficially as frequently attacked patrol units in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Now their role is official thanks to a 2013 order made by then Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. 

There is an excellent saying that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Tony Dungy could due to brush up on sports history to view how tolerance in sport has actually improved professional games.

Jackie Robinson signs a contract in 1947 to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Source: Unknown, possibly Baseball Hall of Fame

Jackie Robinson, with Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, faced death threats after he signed a contract to integrate Major League Baseball in 1947.                                                         Source: The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame

When Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to MLB and the Brooklyn Dodgers from the segregated Negro Leagues, his intent was not just to shake social convention, but to up the standard of play, as well as grow the audience and the league. On Robinson’s first day in 1947, nearly 14,000 of the Dodger’s 23,000 spectators were African American. Robinson was mentored by another icon, Jewish player Hank Greenberg. Robinson, himself, mentored another player named Larry Doby. Like Robinson, Doby faced discrimination and hazing as the first black to play in the American League.

Did Robinson’s presence hurt the cohesion of his team? When an opposing manager called Robinson a nigger and urged him ‘to go back to the cotton fields,’ Branch Rickey said the offending manager “did more than anybody to unite the Brooklyn Dodgers. When he poured out that string of unconscionable abuse, he solidified and united thirty men.”

Did Robinson’s presence, the harassment, and media attention, hamper the Dodgers’ performance? Hardly, in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers won the National League Title.

Oh and Robinson? Despite constant harassment, and threats to his life and safety, Robinson was named 1947’s National League Rookie of the Year.

Now there are Christians out there who claim that Dungy, devout himself, is being “crucified,” even “Tebowed” for the comments because of his religion. Three reasons why this is bogus. First, Tony Dungy is in the business of motivational speaking and building character. If a man is going to use his brand to influence others, he’d better be open to criticism, especially when it tests his faith.

Second, Dungy never once claims that his spiritual belief is the reason for his comments. He bases the comments on the fear and reaction of others, including the press, and the team.

Finally, even if he did attribute the decision to religion, Dungy himself is contradicting himself. As he writes in his book Quiet Strength “If God has given you a lot of ability, I believe you should be held to a higher level of expectation.”  Oh, then this: “I needed to do my current job well, keep preparing, and wait on God’s timing.  I needed to trust His leadership rather than try to force an outcome I wanted.”

Which brings us to the times when people have used their Christianity to force an outcome. The Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition are two that can never be mentioned enough. Did I mention that both the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and of course, the Westboro Baptist Church? All are all made up of Christians who condemned others for their own desired outcome. The reality is this: for a group of people who taught never to judge, Christians sure are quick to hop on the bench and condemn.

To be perfectly clear, Tony Dungy is neither a Nazi or a fascist. He is, however, influential. And saying, “I love you, but I don’t accept your lifestyle,” is plain and simple judgement. Don’t throw stones at glass houses, Coach. Jesus never would.

Christianity Could Lighten Up on the Bigotry. Here, the Bishop of Dresden salutes the Third Reich in 1933. Even Hitler attended a Christian Church Source: Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand)

History shows us that Christians have used religion as an excuse to condemn others. Here, the Bishop of Dresden salutes the Third Reich in 1933. Even Hitler prayed and attended a Christian Church
Source: Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand

The KKK began burning crosses in the 1915 to revive a Medieval ritual used to motive the Scottish Crusaders against their enemies. Source: UPI

The KKK began burning crosses in the 1915 to revive a Medieval ritual used to motivate the Scottish Christian Crusaders against their enemies. Source: UPI

The only thing the Evangelicals of Westboro Baptist have succeeded at doing with their interpretation of Christianity is unite the world against Christians.

The only thing the evangelicals of Westboro Baptist Church have succeeded at doing with their interpretation of Christianity is unite the world against Christians.          AP/Paul Connors

Now in fairness, these are uneasy times for many Christians. There’s lots of war, strife, famine, greed, funky weather events and other Biblically foretold oddities. This red river in China is enough to make any devotee of Revelations go bat shit. Yet I’ll never understand how homosexuals and sexually liberated (or rather, responsible) women scare the beJesus out of born agains. Which brings me to conclude one very important fact: For a group that is supposed to be trusting and faithful, Christians are deeply distrustful and afraid.

As a believer myself, I’m not looking forward to the End of Times either. I’m not loving the possible methods. And I certainly don’t want to hang out with these types of Christians for the rest of eternity.  Still, there’s a heck of a lot of scripture out there for people like myself, Tony Dungy and even the furthest extremist to find comforting during these anxious times. From Psalm 118:6  “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” (Particularly a gay man in the NFL?)

Again, this is not the case of Tony Dungy’s religion getting in the way of his reason. Deep down even Coach Dungy knows this himself. To quote another winner from his book Quiet Strength: “God’s definition of success is really one of significance – the significant difference our lives can make in the lives of others.”