Tony Dungy Explains Why He Wouldn't Have Drafted Michael Sam

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2014

USA Today

Updates from Tuesday, July 22

Tony Dungy released a statement Tuesday in regards to the comments he made about Michael Sam. Via Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, it reads in part:

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 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.

Original Text

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy thinks Michael Sam deserves a chance to play in the NFL. It just likely wouldn't have happened on his team if he were still on the sidelines.

"I wouldn't have taken him," Dungy told Ira Kaufman of The Tampa Tribune. "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 quote comes as part of a larger piece from Kaufman discussing an emphasis on tolerance in NFL locker rooms.

TMZ Sports contacted Sam's representatives for a response: "Michael Sam is responding to Tony Dungy's comments -- by not responding -- with Sam's rep telling TMZ Sports he refuses to engage with the legendary coach ... and wants to keep his focus on football." 

Uncredited/Associated Press

In May, Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. Expected by some to be a mid-round draft choice, the former Missouri standout fell to the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round. While there were legitimate football reasons for him to fall—Sam is considered undersized at 6'2" and 261 pounds—some wondered whether his sexuality played a factor.

"It sure seems that way, no matter what we've heard about the NFL culture being progressive enough—with the league advancing a Respect in the Workplace agenda—to tolerate a player without regard to his sexual orientation," wrote Jarrett Bell of USA Today at the time.

Since being drafted, the Rams have gone out of their way to express their support. Head coach Jeff Fisher has made multiple national media appearances to talk about engendering tolerance and understanding in the locker room. St. Louis players who have addressed the situation have also reacted positively, consistently saying Sam is treated like another member of the locker room.

"There's a 90-man roster right now," wide receiver T.J. Moe told Kaufman. "It doesn't go 89, and then Michael Sam's over there—this is the gay team, this is the straight team. Michael Sam is on this team and he's treated just like anyone else."

Sam recently received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2014 ESPYS. He's been recognized and congratulated by numerous high-profile figures, including President Barack Obama.

While a majority of players and league officials have expressed their support, there will always be those who refuse to accept Sam. There will be people who are less tolerant somewhere along the way—whether it be a player, coach or fan—and the Rams and Sam have to come together in constructive ways to solve it.

"If you're going to take a leadership position by drafting Michael, you have to expect the good and the bad," Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff told Kaufman. "We're prepared for it, and I think we'll shine through it."

There is also the matter of increased media attention. Sam is arguably the most-covered seventh-round pick in league history. Players picked that late in the draft are typically lottery tickets, guys teams can cast off during training camp cuts without much more than a press release. Sam, whether he makes the team or doesn't, will be the fodder of splashy headlines regardless.

This isn't the first time Dungy has discussed Sam. When the Oprah Winfrey Network announced a potential reality show starring Sam—one that would focus on his off-field life, not intrude on the locker room—Dungy called it a "distraction." The network and Sam later decided to put the show on hold, in part because of the national backlash.

Jordan Strauss/Associated Press

It's worth noting that the Super Bowl-winning coach has consistently supported Sam's effort to play in the league otherwise. When asked by Tom McClanahan of WAWV-TV in Terre Haute, Indiana, about Sam in February, Dungy indicated the NFL has always been a meritocracy.

"The NFL has always been based on merit and I think that will continue to be the case whether it's Michael Sam and the issue of homosexuality or anything else," Dungy said. "Guys who produce and play well will be welcome in the league."

Dungy retired from coaching following the 2008 season. He finished with a career 139-69 record in 13 NFL seasons, six with the Bucs and his last seven with the Colts. He has worked as an author in addition to his broadcasting work at NBC since retirement.

As for Sam, he's still no guarantee he'll make the Rams' 53-man roster. St. Louis has arguably the league's deepest defensive line, and seventh-round picks—even ones with national fame—are fungible commodities. He, like everyone else, will have to prove he belongs.

Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.