On January 6, four days after Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest during the Bills’ Monday Night Football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Tracie Canada, an assistant professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, wrote an article for Scientific American in which she posited that Black NFL players are disproportionately affected by the violence of football. Not a tough conclusion to come to, given that the NFL skews over 70% Black from a player perspective.
One individual who was offended by the article was NBC Sports analyst, former Super Bowl-winning head coach, and noted Christian activist Tony Dungy.
Whether right or wrong, Dungy at least has two legitimate platforms on which to speak on the subject. He is a Black man, and he is a former NFL player. Whether Canada was right or wrong in invoking Hamlin’s name at such a sensitive time is another matter.
What Dungy is not, and where he has far less authority with which to speak, is a woman who must consider an abortion for any number of reasons. But that did not stop Dungy from invoking Hamlin’s name himself at Friday’s anti-abortion March for Life in Washington D.C.
“Those prayers were answered,” Dungy said in full, regarding the prayers from both Bills and Bengals players on the field, and prayers for Hamlin’s well-being from around the country. “Damar’s recovering now, he’s home, he’s been released from the hospital. But what’s the lesson in that? An unbelievable thing happened that night in a professional football game with millions of dollars of ticket money on the line. That game was canceled. Why? Because a life was at stake. And people wanted to see that life saved. 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. But those lives are still important to God and in God’s eyes.”
Prayer may have helped Hamlin in his recovery; that we do not know. But Hamlin was also helped to a great extent by the medical professionals in the Bills’ employ, and those at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Bills assistant athletic trainer Denny Kellington was specifically lauded by the doctors who worked with Hamlin at UNC after he was transported there.
To Dungy, it seems that the use of Hamlin’s name is fair game, but only in a selective sense. Sadly, Dungy’s selective intolerance has been in the news far too often in recent days.
As USA Today’s Nancy Armour put it on Friday:
In a since-deleted Tweet, the Hall of Fame coach who is now an NBC Sports analyst ridiculed Minnesota’s efforts to treat its most at-risk students with compassion and care by sharing a debunked — and wholly nonsensical – claim that some schools are providing litter boxes because students are identifying as cats.
Armour had no trouble hammering the larger point home.
In a new poll released Thursday, 45% of transgender and nonbinary youth said they’d been cyberbullied or harassed online because of increased anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and policies, while 24% said they’d been bullied at school. Nearly 30% said they don’t feel safe going to a doctor if they’re sick or injured.
Now consider that more than half of transgender and nonbinary youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, according to The Trevor Project’s 2022 survey on mental health, and that 86% in the new Morning Consult poll said their mental health has been negatively affected by state laws restricting transgender rights.
“It has made me feel increasingly trapped and hopeless,” one person told The Trevor Project.
It’s these kids, these already vulnerable and in-peril kids, who Tony Dungy chose to pile on using his large, national platform. Who Dungy put further in harm’s way with his bigotry and ignorance, under the guise of his “Christian” faith.
Dungy didn’t have a problem forwarding that ridiculous theory. It aligned with his own beliefs, though he eventually, he backed off in a statement.
“I saw a tweet yesterday 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.”
That year, Dungy was the headliner at a fundraiser for the Indiana Family Institute, whose primary objective was to oppose same-sex marriage. The event’s invitation featured a picture of Dungy coaching an NFL game in his Colts attire, with assurances that “an opportunity to financially support the Indiana Family Institute” would be available.
“I appreciate the stance [IFI is] taking, and I embrace that stance,” Dungy said during the IFI fundraiser of the group’s opposition to same-sex marriage. “IFI is saying what the Lord says. You can take that and make your decision on which way you want to be. I’m on the Lord’s side.”
“I wouldn’t have taken him,” Dungy said of the Rams drafting Sam. And wait for it… “I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth… things will happen.”
Dungy has every right to his beliefs. We know this. But he also has the capability — or at least he should — to understand what kinds of damage those beliefs can do if they’re invoked in hurtful ways.
Former NFL defensive end Esera Tuaolo, who came out two decades ago, and played for Dungy back with Dungy was the defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, put a voice to the Dungy seen as a good man, and the Dungy who has revealed himself as a narrower believer.
“He was always a kind-hearted man everyone looked up to,” Tuaolo told Zeigler. “He was very motivating and always steering us in a way of doing good in our lives and doing positive things and being a role model.”
Which is why Dungy’s current stances have to make Tuaolo feel differently.
“When I hear all of the stuff he’s said about my community, it hurts me. It’s conflicting to me because I know the person. Playing for him I never heard him say anything anti-gay or use gay slurs. I understand why some people are enraged at him, for him to support organizations that are anti-gay and work with them.”
Dungy has put himself firmly in the eye of multiple controversial subjects. In his own idea of advocacy, he surely believes that this is the right thing to do. And there are aspects of selective intolerance which naturally come with any belief system, no matter how conservative or liberal. Dungy hardly holds the patent on that.
But to work Damar Hamlin’s name into an anti-abortion speech without mentioning Hamlin himself seems a bit off. Did Dungy speak of Hamlin’s charity, which has raised over $9 million since his injury? Did he speak of Hamlin’s beliefs, perhaps gleaned by a visit or call to Hamlin to see how he’s doing? Dungy has been an informal adviser to the NFL in situations going back to Michael Vick’s reinstatement into the NFL following his prison term for federal dogfighting charges, so you’d think he might work that in as well.
If Dungy actually reached out to Hamlin to pray for him or with him, that would make more sense. But we do not know whether Dungy has done that. Perhaps if he had led the group he was speaking to in a prayer for Hamlin, it would look more that Dungy was speaking from his faith, and less that he was using Hamlin as a pawn.
None of this is to say that NBC should terminate Dungy’s contract. I do not believe in “cancel culture,” so it would be hypocritical of me to advocate for it here. But if Dungy is going to say these things, and if he sees himself as the ultimate arbiter for who can and cannot say this or that thing, he’s going to have to take responsibility for those words and actions at some point.
It will be Dungy’s challenge, and NBC’s challenge, to align his religious beliefs with his potential for continued employment. But I would say that it is Dungy’s challenge alone to frame his statements in ways that do more good than harm. In his statement, Dungy said that as a Christian, he “should speak in love and in ways that are caring and helpful.”
The extent to which he’s done that this week is open to opinion. That said, whenever selective intolerance is the last word on any subject, we are all the worse for it.