Tony Dungy’s Transcendence Backpedal: Differentiating Distraction from Distraction

This certainly isn’t the first nor last story covering Tony Dungy’s remarks and clarification that he would not have drafted Michael Sam.  Tampa Tribune writer Ira Kaufman’s broad story about the NFL trying to reign in player behavior spotlighted Michael Sam’s entrance to the league as its first openly gay player. Dungy’s comments in the article argued against drafting Sam:

“I wouldn’t have taken him,’’ said former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy, now an analyst for NBC. “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.’’

Dungy’s comments have brought an inordinate amount of criticism his way, ranging from ESPN’s Dan Graziano suggesting Dungy’s comments “better left unsaid” to Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel arguing Dungy’s assessment of Sam “shows stunning lack of courage.”  Rather than focus on the political and social ramifications of Dungy’s assessment of Sam, this article focuses on Dungy’s image repair efforts.

On Tuesday July 22nd, Dungy released a statement clarifying his remarks.

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 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.

Using Crisis Communication scholar Bill Benoit’s image repair typology, Dungy’s statement can be viewed as an exercise in reducing the offensiveness of his actions.  Dungy could have employed mortification (a sincere apology) for his remarks, but he decided to clarify (expand; double down) on his remarks through the image repair strategies of transcendence and differentiation.

Transcendence

Although differentiation (redefining the act in question) plays a more central role in his defense discourse, Dungy’s use of transcendence (placing act in larger context) provides a necessary precursor for his use of differentiation. He began by stating that his remarks were made weeks ago in reference to the NFL draft:

I was asked whether I would have drafted Michael Sam and I answered that 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.

The contextual addition Dungy adds here is the Oprah Winfrey reality show, which was unsurprisingly postponed by the OWN network after considerable scrutiny. The show, critics argued, could have provided unwanted pressure on Sam and alienate him from his teammates. In a similar way that coaches try to avoid HBO’s Hard Knocks, Dungy’s argument about television cameras in the locker room being a distraction seems reasonable.

Yet, Dungy continued expanding on his previous comments through the larger context of “distraction.”

“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.”

For Dungy, bringing in any player with any off-field baggage would be considered a distraction.  This distinction allowed him to further explain his previous comments through differentiation.

Differentiation

Throughout his statement, Dungy uses differentiation to assert that he was not evaluating Sam based on his sexual orientation. Certainly, Dungy’s public views supporting a gay marriage ban could influence the way the media and public interpret his opinion on the NFL’s first openly gay player.  Dungy undoubtedly knew this, which might explain why his image repair discourse was nuanced and complex.  He was seeking to repair his image with the media and general public while maintaining a positive image with the Christian community, which appears to be a delicate balance.

He contended that Kaufman did not ask him further questions that would have shown he wanted Sam to have the same opportunity as everyone else in the NFL:

“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.”

Here, Dungy is trying to reduce the offensiveness of his Tampa Tribune comments by suggesting the range of questions did not allow for a fully developed evaluation of Michael Sam as a player and person.  Implicit in this use of differentiation is shifting some blame on Kaufman, but his statement continues to focus on his prior remarks and not on the work of Kaufman or the Tampa Tribune, which keeps the focus on differentiation rather than shift the blame.  In all, Dungy’s “I was not asked” statements sought to clarify that he does not believe Sam should be discriminated against because of his sexual orientation. 

Later, Dungy expands his use of differentiation in reference to why he wouldn’t have drafted Sam.  Returning to his initial Tampa Tribune comments appears appropriate as it will provide some context for his July 22nd statement:

“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.”

Dungy’s July 22nd statement tries to clarify what he meant by “deal with all of it” and “things will happen.”  Again, he used the larger context of distraction to redefine his comments:

“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.”

The nuance Dungy employs here is unwise because it provided more questions and debate (most notably by an inane back and forth by ESPN’s Mike and Mike). Dungy tries to redefine his assertion that he would not have drafted Sam because of the media distraction, not Sam’s sexual orientation.  But obviously, Sam is receiving attention because he’s the NFL’s first openly gay player.  To assert that one can detach the reason behind the attention from the actual attention is nonsense. 

Overall, I find Dungy’s image repair discourse to be ineffective.  Clarifying his statement through the context of the NFL draft and the Oprah Winfrey show appeared to be appropriate choices which added important detail to his Tampa Tribune comments.  However, Dungy erred when he suggested the audience should view his comments though the broader context of distraction.  This use of transcendence provided Dungy the link (even if illogical) to differentiate between the distraction of Sam’s sexual orientation and the media distraction due to Sam’s sexual orientation.  Dungy’s use of differentiation only brought upon more media attention (including a Dan Patrick Show interview), which could have been avoided with a more straight-forward statement.

Dungy would have been better suited by continuing to use the Oprah Winfrey show context by suggesting that without the reality show Sam would not have provided near the media distraction and that he would be welcomed on any of Dungy’s teams. Maybe Dungy’s religious convictions provided the impetus for his nuanced approach, but whatever the cause, Dungy could have quelled the media firestorm with a statement focusing on embracing equality and meritocracy not just in sports, but in all professions. What a statement that would have been! But alas, we only have this distraction.

 

 

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