Tony Dungy is one of the most upstanding men in the football universe. A soft-spoken committed Christian, he had a reputation for fairness and integrity while serving as an NFL head coach. But now, in some quarters, Tony Dungy is considered a “bigot.”
Dungy recently responded to a question about whether he would have drafted Michael Sam (the first openly homosexual player in the NFL and a seventh-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams). Dungy’s response was “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.” And then the internet exploded. Other media outlets besmirched Dungy’s character. Twitter overflowed with insults. The common sentiment was that as a black man Dungy should be especially sensitive to bigotry, which was reflected in this CBS Sports story.
Such comments miss the mark. They misrepresent Dungy and misunderstand what bigotry truly is.
First, these commenters miss the context of both the question and the subject. Dungy said he would not have drafted Sam because of the distractions he would bring. Moreover, he made these comments about a player taken in the last round of the draft, a marginal NFL prospect. No NFL team has patience for distractions from non-contributors. Answering from a coaching perspective, it makes sense to avoid such distractions. If Sam had ben a top five pick I suspect Dungy’s answer would have been different.
Second, the detractors assume motive. Could Dungy be opposed to homosexual players, even bitter or hateful toward them? Certainly. But you can’t see that in his answer. Dungy is openly Christian and in the past said he believes the Bible teaches homosexuality is wrong. Does that make him a bigot? No, it means he has conviction. He has shown no evidence of being hateful toward anyone, whether or not he disagrees with him.
Third, these commenters wield a dangerous word wildly. A bigot hates. He is someone who stubbornly holds a position of derision or dislike toward another person. Bigotry harms others. Some will say that Dungy’s answer is harmful because he would have refused to employ Sam based on his sexual orientation. But by that measure he is just as much a bigot against every other player he chose not to draft based on any number of reasons. And there were thousands.
To make a decision from conviction, because one believes it is moral or for the best, is not bigotry. Bigotry is when one makes a decision in order to exclude or harm another. When we arrive at such a misunderstanding of “bigot,” all ability to reason, to share beliefs, and to discourse are gone. We cannot assume the hearts and motives of others, but when we communicate we should assume they are assuming our motives. We must speak not only with clarity and context but also with care and love. People who disagree may still find bigotry there, but they will have no grounds on which to stand.