The NFL is terrified of the culture war

Whether it's a gay defensive end or an evangelical quarterback, NFL franchises fear embracing potentially polarizing players unless they're Pro Bowlers

Michael Sam
(Image credit: (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson))

The culture war battle lines are clearly drawn in the National Football League — even as the league does everything it can to avoid being conscripted.

The NFL is a bastion of machismo not always associated with the most progressive attitudes (see offensive lineman Richie Incognito and last year's Miami Dolphins bullying scandal). And many players and coaches are evangelical Christians with conservative social values.

Tony Dungy, now retired to NBC's NFL commentary booth, is one such evangelical. He was also the first African-American head coach to lead his team to a Super Bowl title. But he wouldn't have helped Michael Sam, the league's first openly gay player, achieve his own milestone by drafting the defensive end.

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"I wouldn't have taken him," Dungy recently told 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."

Dungy added, "It's not going to be totally smooth...things will happen."

As you can well imagine, the backlash to Dungy's comments was swift and fierce.

"Talent is not a distraction," GLAAD chief Sarah Kate Ellis argued. "That Tony Dungy can only see Michael Sam for his sexual orientation reflects how far out of touch Dungy has fallen with the NFL, which values a player because of his skill, not because of who he loves."

"Never mind that pioneers, like the first player to break baseball's color barrier or the first black head coach in the NFL, are always a 'distraction,'" wrote The Washington Post's Cindy Boren.

Keith Olbermann, sports commentator turned liberal pundit and back again, was predictably scathing. "Tony Dungy just admitted," Olbermann said, "that Tony Dungy wouldn't be a skilled enough coach to deal with the distraction of doing the right thing."

Dungy later scrambled to clarify. "I do not believe Michael's sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization," he said. "I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction."

This is something every NFL team fears: distraction. Owners usually prefer to avoid controversy because they don't want to alienate any part of the fan base over non-football-related issues. (Witness the fan reaction to Bob Costas' gun control commentary.)

But coaches are even more committed to keeping the focus on the team as a whole rather than any individual player. Even social causes, in their view, have to advance team rather than personal goals.

And it's not just one side of the culture war that has the NFL scared. Look no further than one of the league's best-known unemployed players: Tim Tebow, a famously religious young man who created a meme by repeatedly kneeling in prayer on the field.

Tebow, like Sam, was an accomplished college athlete. Sam was the SEC's co-defensive player of the year. Tebow was a Heisman Trophy winner. Tebow, however, has a track record of success in the NFL.

In 2011, the outspoken evangelical quarterback led the Denver Broncos on an improbable six-game winning streak and into the playoffs. They notched a single postseason win based on Tebow's last-minute heroics before being demolished by the New England Patriots — coincidentally the last NFL squad to sign Tebow (he didn't make the team).

There were flaws in Tebow's game. He wasn't good at reading defenses. He had a weird throwing motion. He completed only 47.9 percent of his passes, including just 46.5 percent during his miraculous 2011 season. His most accurate year came when he made just eight attempts. Still, Tebow is better than the vast majority of backup and third-string quarterbacks in the NFL. So why isn't he on a team?

It's not necessarily discrimination against conservative Christians. Otherwise Philip Rivers — and much of the league — would be out of work. The key is that Tebow isn't viewed as being a good enough player to warrant the quarterback controversies and media storm that seem to follow him wherever he goes.

Teams are willing to put up with distraction and controversy for world-beating players. Coaches are also willing — sometimes to a fault — to stand behind such players when it enhances, rather than detracts from, team cohesion.

Ray Lewis and Ray Rice survived serious off-field legal problems because the Baltimore Ravens valued their on-field and locker-room contributions. Coaches tuned out the media circus when Tebow, Terrell Owens, and Michael Vick were seen as starters and stars. But for backups or players whose skills are in decline, patience wears thin.

Ironically, the man who helped paved the way for Vick's return to the NFL after a prison term for dog-fighting was none other than Tony Dungy — though Dungy didn't have to coach him. It's easy for a league plagued by player safety concerns, substance abuse, and legal problems to rationalize that politics is too much for its plate.

If Sam becomes a superstar, teams will overlook most anything. If he struggles, he, Tebow, and Dungy might become teammates — in the broadcast booth.

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