Keeping Score

Miami Dolphins Call On Tony Dungy, the Father Flanagan of Football

How the ex-NFL coach became football's moral compass

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NBC via Getty Images / NBC via Getty Images

Tony Dungy during "Football Night in America" in Green Bay, Wis., on Sept. 8, 2011

When Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross decided to put together an “advisory committee” to help improve the team’s locker-room environment in the wake of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin fiasco, one appointee seemed almost like a given: former Indianapolis Colts coach and current NBC football commentator Tony Dungy. If there’s trouble brewing in the NFL, call Dungy to fix things up.

Dungy is almost universally regarded as a classy, kind guy. He’s become the moral conscience of football. So what’s his task here? “The way I understand it, we’re not really investigating this to find out what’s going on,” says Dungy. “We’re going to let the NFL do that and the Dolphins. What’s going to happen is, we’re going to get the report and try to formulate best practices policies for Mr. Ross going forward.” And what’s the fundamental issue that has to be addressed? “I think basically it’s got to be ‘How do you foster an atmosphere in the locker room, on the team, that takes into account the uniqueness of NFL football and allows the players to have the kind of fellowship and brotherhood that they can only experience in the locker room?’ It may be different from other work environments. But also understand that it’s still a place where everybody is working for the same goal, and everybody needs to get the respect of each other. So I think you’re looking to hit that happy medium.”

The true nature of the relationship between Incognito and Martin remains a mystery. But we do know Incognito used a racial slur in his communication with Martin. Even if Incognito used the slur in jest, as he has suggested, and thought it was part of acceptable locker-room banter, that talk doesn’t sit well with Dungy, the first African-American coach to win a Super Bowl. “Culturally, these things are a lot different,” says Dungy. “A younger generation is certainly different than we are. I’m old school in that regard — I don’t think it’s acceptable. From anybody — black-black, black-white, white-black. For me and my generation it was much too hurtful to even talk about that.”

How did Dungy become the NFL’s moral compass? It started with Michael Vick. Dungy, an evangelical Christian, turned to prison ministry after leaving coaching in 2008, and became a mentor to Vick while the quarterback was serving his dogfighting sentence in Leavenworth. Vick has credited Dungy with his rehabilitation, and Dungy’s stamp helped Vick get back in the game. In late 2009, the NFL appointed Dungy to lead a new “player advisory forum” to improve communication between the NFL and its players.

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When asked if he feels like football’s moral conscience, Dungy laughs. “No,” he says. “Not at all. I always felt, working for coach [Chuck] Noll for 10 years, that’s where I got my start. And coach Noll always felt that if you’re only coaching to help guys get better on the field, that was only half the job. So I got kind of trained that part of my job [is] to help guys develop in other ways too. As an assistant coach and a head coach, I always wanted to do that. Not just coach on the field, but be there for all circumstances. So I guess that’s just the way I was brought up coaching.”

Not everyone agrees with Dungy’s views. He did not curse while he coached, and criticized New York Jets coach Rex Ryan for exposing his potty mouth to the masses during the 2010 edition of Hard Knocks, the popular HBO program that documents NFL training camps. “I’m disappointed with all the profanity,” Dungy said on Dan Patrick’s radio show. “I think Rex can make his points without all that … If I were in charge, I wouldn’t hire someone like that.” Ryan wasn’t happy, and said Dungy “unfairly judged” him.

In 2007, Dungy received a “Friend of the Family” award from the Indiana Family Institute, a group that endorsed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. “I’m on the Lord’s side,” he said at the time. When NBA player Jason Collins came out of the closet this spring, Dungy tweeted, “I don’t agree with Jason Collins’ lifestyle but think he deserves respect and should have opportunities like anyone else!” Asked where he currently stands on gay marriage, Dungy replies, “My views on gay marriage are biblical. I have to stand by my Christian beliefs, and what I read in the bible. So no, that’s not going to change. I don’t think that has anything to do with what goes on in the locker room.”

Dungy’s motivations may be sincere. But once you become the default moral voice for an entire industry, a certain amount of eye rolling is inevitable when you’re tapped to solve a problem. And it’s fair to wonder: Is Ross tapping Dungy for good PR?

“I’ve been with Steve Ross on a number of occasions,” says Dungy. “I talked to him a little bit when he was hiring a coach, just kind of what he wants for his organization. In talking to him about this, I know this doesn’t sit well with him. And he is looking at how to avoid this in the future. I kind of agreed to it because I do feel like he does want to make sure his locker room, and his whole organization, is functioning in certain way.”

“I also think this might help on all levels. High school, college, NFL. There’s not a lot of laboratory that you have on athletic locker rooms, and what they should be and what they are and how you allow for that brotherhood of being together, and keeping it kind of a haven for the players, but also making sure that things like this don’t kind of boil over. I think it will be good in a lot of ways. I definitely think it’s more than PR.”

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