TAMPA — In response to a firestorm over his remarks about Michael Sam, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach and NBC football analyst Tony Dungy emphasized Tuesday that Sam deserves a chance to play in the NFL.
Sam, a defensive end out of Missouri selected in May by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round, is the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team.
“I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization,” Dungy said in a statement issued Tuesday to the NBC Sports website. “I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.”
In a Tampa Tribune story published on Sunday, Dungy said he would not have drafted Sam.
“I wouldn’t have taken him,’’ Dungy said in a story about the NFL’s push to make locker rooms more civil and tolerant. “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.’’
On Monday, Dungy’s remarks were widely discussed on social media and national radio and television programs. Some commentators were supportive of his remarks, while others were disappointed.
On ESPN, Keith Olbermann nominated Dungy as today’s “Worst Person in the Sports World.’’
“Tony Dungy just admitted that Tony Dungy wouldn’t be a skilled enough coach to deal with the distraction of doing the right thing,’’ Olbermann said Monday night.
On a national conference call Tuesday, new Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, who was coached by Dungy for six years in Tampa, was asked about the controversy.
“He’s probably saying what 31 other teams were probably thinking, because they didn’t draft (Sam), for whatever reason,’’ Brooks said.
Here is the full text of Dungy’s statement, :
“On Monday afternoon while on vacation with my family, I was quite surprised to read excerpts from an interview I gave several weeks ago related to this year’s NFL Draft, and I feel compelled to clarify those remarks.
“I was asked whether I would have drafted Michael Sam and I answered that I would not have drafted him. I gave my honest answer, which is that I felt drafting him would bring much distraction to the team. At the time of my interview, the Oprah Winfrey reality show that was going to chronicle Michael’s first season had been announced.
“I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL. He absolutely does. I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process. It should not.
“I was not asked whether I would have a problem having Michael Sam on my team. I would not. I have been asked all of those questions several times in the last three months and have always answered them the same way — by saying that playing in the NFL is, and should be, about merit.
“The best players make the team, and everyone should get the opportunity to prove whether they’re good enough to play. That’s my opinion as a coach. But those were not the questions I was asked.
“What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams.
“I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization. I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.
“I wish Michael Sam nothing but the best in his quest to become a star in the NFL and I am confident he will get the opportunity to show what he can do on the field. My sincere hope is that we will be able to focus on his play and not on his sexual orientation.’’
Sam appeared congenial Tuesday when reporters asked him about Dungy’s comments.
“Thank God he wasn’t the St. Louis Rams coach,” Sam said, laughing with reporters at Rams camp. “I have a great respect for Coach Dungy. Like everyone in America, everyone’s entitled to their own opinions.”
Dungy speaks often of his deep Christian faith and his first book, “Quiet Strength: The Principles, Practices and Priorities of a Winning Life,’’ chronicles his religious beliefs and what role they played in his professional success.
He has been an outspoken advocate for minority hiring in the NFL and in February Dungy was a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2014 in his first year of eligibility.
Dungy coached the Bucs from 1996-2001 before leading the 2006 Indianapolis Colts to a championship against Lovie Smith and the Bears, becoming the first black coach to win a Super Bowl.
Dungy caused a stir in 2007 when he accepted the “Friend of Family” award from the conservative Indiana Family Institute. The coach told the audience he supported the group’s efforts to amend the Indiana constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman.
“I appreciate the stance they’re taking, and I embrace that stance,” Dungy told the crowd of approximately 700 people. “We’re not trying to downgrade anyone else. But we’re trying to promote the family — family values the Lord’s way.”
After Jason Collins came out publicly as a gay NBA player in May, 2013, Dungy commented on Twitter: “I don’t agree with Jason Collins’ lifestyle but I think he deserves respect and should have opportunities like anyone else!’’