Tony Dungy’s tweet, speech shows the regressive worst in sports


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It was admirable when Tony Dungy was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016, for he followed sideline luminaries Bill Parcells, John Madden, Hank Stram, George Allen and Marv Levy as coaches so honored before him in the 2000s.

It was anything but when Dungy accepted a speaking invitation Friday at the March for Life on the National Mall. For at the annual and largest gathering of the nation’s abortion foes, he followed on its podium, over the years, Sen. Jesse Helms, antiabortion extremist Randall Terry and Donald Trump, among others.

To be sure, Helms was, upon his retirement from office in 2001, “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country,” as the great Washington Post political columnist David S. Broder wrote. Terry founded antiabortion organization Operation Rescue, which distributed a “wanted” poster for a Florida abortion doctor, David Gunn, at a rally the summer before Gunn was assassinated in 1993, shot three times in the back outside his Florida clinic. And Trump did what antiabortion Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush before him were fearful of doing because of the event’s extremist undercurrents: He spoke live at the annual march.

Yet Dungy went ahead with his speaking engagement, using his athletic celebrity coupled with his religiosity as deodorant for a theme of intolerance.

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That came days after a tweet by Dungy for which he was rightfully and soundly denounced, shamed into apologizing and deleting his words. It had amplified to Dungy’s nearly 1 million followers a dangerous deceit of reactionaries about the lengths schools are supposedly going to accommodate student identity differences — and about the need to halt them. The well-proven fabrication was ultimately aimed at disobliging the necessities of LGBTQ kids, and even those of kids of color who need to have the opportunity to explore their histories and have them learned by others. It was a slap in the face to Tampa Bay linebacker Carl Nassib, whom the league has celebrated since he revealed he is gay, becoming the first active NFL player to do so.

A person at NBC told me Monday that Dungy apologized to the “Football Night in America” team, for which he is a face. And the network reminded in a memo to staff that “… NBC Sports does not support or condone the views expressed in the tweet and we have made that clear to Tony. Our company has long and proudly supported LGBTQ+ rights and works hard to ensure that all of our employees are seen, acknowledged, recognized and respected.”

Whether the league did the same — or reacted as it did in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s protest, when it decreed fines for any team with a player on the field who didn’t stand for the national anthem — I don’t know. The league didn’t answer my email asking for clarification on where it stood with Dungy’s associations.

Dungy posted his regret Saturday before participating in NBC’s playoff broadcast: “This past week I posted a tweet that I subsequently deleted. I issued an apology but not everyone saw it. So I am reposting my apology here. As a Christian I want to be a force for love to everyone. A force for healing and reconciliation — not for animosity.”

He tweeted his original mea culpa Wednesday. It read: “I saw a tweet [Tuesday] and I responded to it in the wrong way. As a Christian I should speak in love and in ways that are caring and helpful. I failed to do that and I am deeply sorry.”

I’m not certain what “responded to it in the wrong way” means. But it didn’t stop Dungy from accepting his moment to stand before anti-abortionists on a podium frequented by white supremacists and zealots. And from there he even found the gall to invoke the recent story of Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills player who is recovering after suffering cardiac arrest during a game, as some sort of justification for repealing a woman’s right to choose to end a pregnancy.

“People wanted to see that life saved,” Dungy told the March for Life flock, referring to Hamlin. “These are people who aren’t necessarily religious; they got together and called on God. Well, that should be encouraging us because that’s exactly why we’re here. Because every day in this country, innocent lives are at stake. The only difference is they don’t belong to a famous athlete, and they’re not seen on national TV.”

I know there are some Black head coach aspirants in the NFL who would prefer Dungy use this energy and his gravitas to support their discrimination lawsuit against the league’s hiring practices, maybe assisting the next Black Hall of Fame coach. But other than words, he hasn’t joined their cause in action as he has fights against abortion and LGBTQ people.

It isn’t my intent to criticize religiosity, though Dungy has used his to pan non-Christian religions and people whom his version of Christianity rejects. He is an evangelical Christian who has been an outspoken opponent not just of abortion but same-sex marriage, which he campaigned against in Indiana when he was coach of the Colts, and against gay people in general, including those who may toil as professional athletes. He infamously said he wouldn’t have Michael Sam, the would-be first openly gay player in the NFL, in his locker room.

This is all yet another reminder that sports can be, has been and often continues to be an agent for the opposite of which it is celebrated: regression, not progress. Dungy isn’t in the sports world’s ballyhooed vanguard of social change no matter his historical achievement as the first Black head coach to lead a team to a Super Bowl championship.

In fact, in March he is scheduled to stay on brand as a speaker at an all-men’s conference called Men’s Advance 2023. It’s headed by evangelical Christian pastor Andrew Wommack, who argued two years ago that “homosexuality is three times worse than smoking. We ought to put a label across their forehead: ‘This can be hazardous to your health.’ ”

Dungy should know going through with that appearance could be hazardous to his career.



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