By Jason Keidel
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Tony Dungy, the avuncular emblem of pro football, is now the proud papa of the most parsed paragraph in pro sports.

After his original and sanitized remarks on Michael Sam, Dungy finds himself in an odd place — the hot seat.

After asserting that Sam has every right to play in the NFL, Dungy said that if he were still coaching he would rather avoid the distractions that come with Sam’s employment. It has raised questions about Dungy — who was quick to support Michael Vick after his dogfighting debacle — and arches a few eyebrows over stances he’s has taken vis-a-vis gay marriage.

While football often forces us to swallow our moral compass — rooting for victory over virtue — Dungy was the rare face of dignity, proof positive that you could thrive in the cutthroat climes of the NFL and still respect yourself in the morning.

Dungy is also a pioneer. When the dearly departed Chuck Noll made Dungy the first black coordinator in the league, it saddled him with the burden of being a flag-bearer for equality. And the soft-spoken Dungy has done little to tarnish his image as a goodwill ambassador for all things football.

So some see his comments about Sam as classic hypocrisy. But Dungy never said Sam didn’t deserve to compete for a spot in the NFL. He said he’d rather not inherit the sidebars that come with him. And, frankly, it speaks to an ancient, NFL conundrum. Do you take the talent despite the distractions, or does the talent warrant the tangents that come with his presence?

Frankly, there’s no handbook for this; to a proper, semantic approach to the first openly-gay player in the NFL. And if you take Dungy’s remarks verbatim, it’s still hard to understand what was so offensive.

Imperfect? Surely. Incendiary? Not so sure.

One of the things we love about soft-spoken Dungy is the purity of his heart and hence his thoughts. So you could argue that he should have been a bit more delicate with his response. But if anyone has earned some latitude, it’s Dungy.


And it’s rather disturbing to see the scalding spiritual waters Dungy is in, especially when Ray Rice got docked less than two game checks for knocking a woman unconscious — on camera — and then dragging her limp body onto a casino carpet. They didn’t even have the stones to make his fine commensurate to his current salary. His paltry tax is based on his paltry 2013 salary.

The NFL is good with that.

Just don’t inhale, like Josh Gordon.

Smoke a joint? Get banned a year.

Go Chris Brown on your girlfriend? Lose two games and a meager $58,000.

James Harrison hit Colt McCoy — during a game — applying a technique that was legal the year before, and he got popped for $100,000 and was sidelined for one game.

Albert Haynesworth stepped on a Dallas Cowboy and got banned for five — five! — games.

Ndamukong Suh stepped on a Green Bay Packer and lost two games.

So the NFL is essentially saying that Suh stepping on someone’s arm is the equivalent of punching your fiance’s face and slamming her head into an elevator wall — which knocked her unconsciousness.
Oh, and it’s cool to own a team and get busted with a bucket of pills and $29,000 in your pocket, a la Jim Irsay. He still hasn’t been slapped on either wrist. Perhaps because tough guy Roger Goodell works for him.

None of this gives Dungy carte blanche to say anything. But we’re all twisted over his words when the NFL has far more to worry about than an indelicate paragraph on Sam. For his part, Sam handled the entire affair with class, even joking that he’s glad Dungy isn’t his head coach.

That’s more than we can say for Rice, the Ravens or the NFL. Yesterday, John Harbaugh spoke in sickening euphemisms about mistakes and punishment and what a swell chap Rice really is. He actually said this was a good lesson for kids. I swear. And he insisted ad nauseum that this was simply a mistake, an arbitrary stroke of bad judgement.

Jaywalking is a mistake. Letting the elevator door close on an elderly lady is a mistake. Smashing your fiance’s face is a felony, a despicable thought and the act of a coward.

Goodell is so often hailed as the quintessential Clint Eastwood sheriff, the austere lawman whose glinting badge grows by the week. But unlike Eastwood, who always had a perfect sense of timing and temerity, Goodell’s selective sense of justice is staining the largely Teflon NFL shield.

Empires die from within. They collapse on themselves, and they fall by the hybrid disease of hubris and complacency. The NFL’s worldview is increasingly blurry, slowly unable to separate grand from grandiose.

The NFL has taken an alarming posture toward progress. For decades the league was far more proactive than reactive. But now, between concealing its concussion research and its PEZ-Dispenser approach to painkillers, it has surrendered its flag as the forefront sport on social issues. And it doesn’t take Gloria Steinem to see that the Rice case was a fumble at the 5-yard line.

It takes a while for the disease to swallow the organism, but by the time they see their barbaric indifference toward battered women, they may already be dead.

Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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