Before winning Super Bowl XLI as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, Tony Dungy had already solidified an impressive reputation in the National Football League.
He was the Pittsburgh Steelers safety who forced a game-clinching fumble in Super Bowl XIII. He was the defensive mastermind in Tampa Bay who proved that he could handle a team built around offense. He was a model of dignity and decorum—a coach who didn't curse, scream, or threaten his players. And he was adamant that his approach was as good a method as any for crafting a championship team.
After last Sunday, Dungy had one more item to add to his resume: He became the first African-American head coach to lead his team to an NFL title.
It's just a shame he didn't seize the moment.
Dungy's race may not be the most important part of the story here, but it is an important part—and whether or not Dungy wanted the responsibility, he was the central actor in a historical moment for a sport that remained segregated almost as long as water fountains and lunch counters.
Every African-American head coach in the NFL accepted his job with the understanding that he might be the first to win a Super Bowl—and with the knowledge that he would have to deal with the ensuing media circus. In the end, it was Tony Dungy who won the race: Tony Dungy who was on stage, covered in confetti, with Jim Nantz asking how it felt.
On Sunday night, it was Tony Dungy who had a chance—one chance—to say something moving and important.
And it was Tony Dungy who made a mistake.
Dungy's words upon being hand the Lombardi trophy?
"More than anything, I've said it before, Lovie Smith and I, not only the first two African-Americans, but Christian coaches showing that you can win doing it the Lord's way," the coach said. "And we're more proud of that."
Dungy's mistake was twofold.
First, he compartmentalized his identity: He separated his race from his religion—and he privileged the wrong one.
He should have said something about following in the footsteps of players like Kenny Washington, who effectively integrated football in 1946, and Paul "Tank" Younger, the first athlete recruited by the NFL from a historically black college. And he definitely should have mentioned Art Shell, the first African-American head coach in the NFL.
Instead, Dungy tried to circumvent race and claim that it was more important that he'd won the Super Bowl as a Christian, thus giving credit and power to a group that has no lack of it.
The second part of Dungy's mistake lay in his sacrificing a once-in-history opportunity for thirty seconds of evangelism. True, Dungy has described himself as more of a teacher than a coach; he has donated his time as a mentor to underprivileged kids, and is a committed and attentive parent. But as much as Dungy seems to be following the "Lord's way" on and off the field, there's a sinkhole beneath his perfect surface.
Next month, Tony Dungy will be honored at the annual fundraising banquet of the Indiana Family Institute (IFI), an organization that is dedicated to legalizing discriminatory adoption practices and which endorses participation in a controversial program claiming to cure homosexuality.
The problem is not that Dungy professed his faith on Sunday, but rather that he has used and is using his stature to raise money for a discriminatory organization.
When Braves pitcher John Rocker made racist comments, we demanded an apology.
When Miss USA Tara Connor was caught with drugs, we demanded contrition.
If we ask so much from figures of minimal importance, why would we demand anything less from someone who's made such an indelible mark on the history of America's most popular sport?
Dungy's association with IFI is not comparable to drug use or racism—but as a public figure who has welcomed the opportunity to act as a role model, he takes a risk when he introduces the world to his politics.
Especially when those politics endorse discrimination.
The first African-American players in the NFL faced many injustices; they were forced to stay in separate hotels, they were excluded from road games in unintegrated states, and they were constantly berated on the field by racist members of opposing teams. In many sports—including tennis, lacrosse and hockey—and in the mostly white front offices of professional sports franchises, the challenges for African-Americans are still very real.
By missing his opportunity on Sunday, Dungy didn't just overlook the past—he ignored a struggle that's still going on.
That Dungy's philanthropic work includes a homophobic organization is even more upsetting, as the issue of gay and lesbian athletes is exceedingly relevant in the modern sports world. The recent self-outing of John Amaechi, a former NBA player, proves that there have been and likely still are homosexual pro athletes in the United States. Their struggle for equality is hindered by the reluctance of teammates to share locker rooms and showers, fear of physical harm on the field, fear of homophobic coaches limiting their playing time, and the inability to be open about their lives with their professional colleagues.
The eventual acceptance of gay athletes will be made possible in part by the work of African-Americans, including Tony Dungy. In his public life, the coach has the responsibility to make it easier, not harder, for meaningful change to occur.
Some opportunities, after all, are too important to pass up.