Certainly, when he retired from office in 2001, Helms was “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country,” as the great Washington Post political columnist David S. Broder wrote. Terry founded the anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue, which distributed a “wanted” poster for Florida abortionist David Gunn at a rally the summer before Gunn was murdered in 1993, shot three times in the back outside his Florida clinic. And Trump did what Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush before him were afraid to do because of the event’s extremist undercurrents: He spoke live at the annual march.
Still, Dungy went ahead with his speaking engagement, using his athletic celebrity combined with his religiosity as deodorant for a theme of intolerance.
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It happened just days after a tweet from Dungy for which he was rightly and soundly condemned, shamed into apologizing and deleting his words. It had reinforced for Dungy’s nearly 1 million followers a dangerous delusion by reactionaries about how far schools are supposed to accommodate differences in student identity — and about the need to stop them. The well-rehearsed portrayal was ultimately aimed at discrediting the needs of LGBTQ children, and even children of color, who need to be given the opportunity to explore their stories and have them taught by others. It was a slap in the face for Tampa Bay linebacker Carl Nassib, who has been celebrated by the league since coming out as gay, becoming the first active NFL player to do so.
A person at NBC told me Monday that Dungy apologized to the “Football Night in America” team, for which he is a face. And the network reminded staff in a memo that “…NBC Sports does not endorse or condone the views expressed in the tweet, and we have made that clear to Tony. Our company has long and proudly supported LGBTQ+ rights and works hard to ensure , that all our employees are seen, recognised, acknowledged and respected.”
Whether the league did the same — or responded the way it did in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s protest, fining any team with a player on the field who didn’t stand for the national anthem — I don’t know. The league did not respond to my email asking for clarification on where it stood with Dungy’s associations.
Dungy posted his regret Saturday before participating in NBC’s playoff telecast: “This past week I posted a tweet that I subsequently deleted. I gave an apology but not everyone saw it. So I’m reposting my apology here. As a Christian wishes I to be a force for love for all. A force for healing and reconciliation – not for enmity.”
He tweeted his original mea culpa on Wednesday. It read: “I saw a tweet (Tuesday) and I reacted 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 of the.”
I’m not sure what “answered it the wrong way” means. But that didn’t stop Dungy from accepting his moment to stand before anti-abortionists at a podium frequented by white supremacists and zealots. And from there, he even found the gall to invoke the recent story of Damar Hamlin, the Buffalo Bills player recovering from cardiac arrest during a game, as some sort of justification for revoking a woman’s right to choose to terminate a pregnancy.
“People wanted to see that life saved,” Dungy told the March for Life crowd, referring to Hamlin. “These are people who aren’t necessarily religious; they got together and called on God. That should be encouraging to 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 haven’t been seen on national television.”
I know there are some black head coaching aspirants in the NFL who would prefer that Dungy use this energy and his gravitas to support their discrimination case against the league’s hiring practices, perhaps helping the next Black Hall of Fame coach. But aside from words, he has not joined their cause in action, as he has fights against abortion and LGBTQ people.
It is not my intention to criticize religiosity, although Dungy has used his to pander to non-Christian religions and people that his version of Christianity rejects. He is an evangelical Christian who has been an outspoken opponent of not only abortion but same-sex marriage, which he campaigned against in Indiana when he coached the Colts, and against homosexuals in general, including those who may struggle as professional athletes. He infamously said he didn’t want Michael Sam, the first openly gay player in the NFL, in his locker room.
All of this is yet another reminder that sport can be, has been, and often continues to be an agent of the opposite it celebrates: regression, not progress. Dungy is not at the cutting edge of social change in the sports world, regardless of his historic achievement as the first black head coach to lead a team to a Super Bowl championship.
In fact, in March he is scheduled to remain on fire as a speaker at an all-male conference called Men’s Advance 2023. It is chaired by evangelical Christian pastor Andrew Wommack, who argued two years ago that “homosexuality is three times worse than smoking. We should put a label over their foreheads: ‘This may be injurious to health.’ “
Dungy should know that going through with that look could be dangerous to his career.