Not everyone is cut out to be a pioneer.
Thankfully, the role doesn’t require a horde of people.
Being at the forefront of unprecedented developments can be uncomfortable. The level of attention and scrutiny spikes like temperatures in July. Everywhere you go, the environment changes as soon as you arrive. Normalcy warps and cracks and becomes a distant memory.
After a while, though, firsts aren’t such a big deal.
Sure, they’re always honored for their roles. Their names are etched in stone and the history books. They are recognized for their feat as long as they live.
But as more folks follow suit, what once was considered bold, daring and shocking becomes the new norm.
By then, when the magnifying glass goes away and the spotlight goes out, it’s easier for the masses to join in and do the right thing, too.
So we shouldn’t be overly harsh in judging Tony Dungy’s comments that he “wouldn’t want to deal with all of it,” and therefore wouldn’t have drafted openly gay NFL player Michael Sam.
It turns out that Dungy’s heart really is in the right place.
He simply isn’t pioneer material.
“… I felt drafting him would bring much distraction to the team,” Dungy said in a statement released Tuesday, attempting to quell the firestorm he ignited by earlier remarks to the Tampa Tribune.
The former NFL coach proceeded to explain that he “would not” have a problem having Sam on his team; sexual orientation “should not” be part of player evaluation; and Sam “absolutely” deserves an opportunity to play,
Furthermore, Dungy said playing in the NFL “is, and should be, about merit” and he doesn’t believe that Sam’s orientation will be “a distraction to his teammates or his organization.”
It’s not Sam that would worry coach Dungy.
It’s everything that comes with Sam. Not just extra interest from ESPN, Sports Illustrated and legions of sportswriters, but Oprah, “The View” and countless media outlets interested solely in Sam’s sociological impact.
It would resemble the sideshow that accompanied Tim Tebow.
Or the media circus that would’ve blanketed Jackie Robinson in 24/7 coverage if he integrated baseball today, instead of in 1947.
Lots of coaches don’t want to deal with all that. Fewer actually say it out loud. They just select alternative players in the draft or make different choices in free agency, leaving the media magnets to become a fellow coach’s “headache.”
Some coaches preferred to steer clear of Tebow for that reason. Others might think twice before lobbying for Johnny Manziel.
Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco had their share of coaches who undoubtedly wanted no part of the mercurial wideouts’ collateral effects.
Sam, a seventh-round draft pick, draws an inordinate amount of cameras, microphones and notepads for a reason that sets him apart from any other player. But the end result is identical: an inordinate amount of cameras, microphones and notepads.
St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher didn’t mind accepting the inevitable “distraction” that Sam brings. If Sam was Jadeveon Clowney or Sammy Watkins instead, plenty of coaches would endure the hassle, too, perhaps even Dungy.
A top pick would bring the same attention for his orientation, but not the additional burden of being a marginal prospect.
Nonetheless, courage is a prerequisite for trailblazers, whether demonstrated by Sam and Fisher, or Branch Rickey and Robinson. Fortunately, only one person is necessary to get the ball rolling, because most of us don’t have what it takes.
(And let’s take it easy with the Sam-Robinson analogies, immensely popular but not really comparable. While neither player can be separated from his unique position as a groundbreaker and the subsequent hoopla, there has never been a ban on homosexuals.)
Sam’s sexuality is the indirect reason Dungy wouldn’t draft him, because there’s no extra noise if Sam was straight. That’s not the same as Dungy not drafting the linebacker due to orientation, but it’s close enough for discomfort.
The time will come when we no longer make such a fuss over players like Sam and the NBA’s Jason Collins. Just like no one thinks twice anymore about black players or Muslim players.
The hard work is always done years in advance, performed by a few gutsy individuals before it bears fruit for everyone. A handful of hearty men and women accept the challenges – the commotion, division, frenzy, contention, etc. – that the rest of us, like Dungy, would rather do without.
That doesn’t automatically mean we’re evil or hateful. It doesn’t mean we’re rooting against anyone. It just means we lack the fortitude to be a pioneer.
If being one was easy, we wouldn’t need them in the first place.
But thank goodness they exist. And there’s always room for more.