Tuesday, February 06, 2007

On Coaches and Character.

With so much else going on the world--getting to that in a post later today--I'm not sure why the Tony Dungy thing has irritated me so deeply. It started as mere annoyance at yet another pro athlete or coach thanking God for winning the Super Bowl, as if God gives a rat's ass about championships in any sport. It grew as the Colts' owner joined the coach in asserting that God had a plan for their team which involved carefully orchestrated tests of character to ensure their eventual success for the glory of his name. Oops, His name, that is. But the clincher was Dungy's postgame response to being congratulated for being the first African-American to coach a Super Bowl champion (well, the first to coach a Super Bowl team, period, a distinction he now shares with the opposing coach, his close friend Lovie Smith):
"I'm proud to be the first African-American coach to win this," Dungy said during the trophy ceremony. "But again, more than anything, Lovie Smith and I are not only the first African-American but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord's way. We're more proud of that."
Dungy and Smith are hailed, as they absolutely should be, as demonstrations of how far our nation has progressed in civil rights and opportunities for African-Americans. But Dungy prefers to be hailed as a Christian. At first blush, it seems that he was taking a step beyond even the unprecedented enlightenment that made it possible for an NFL team to hire and go to a championship under a black coach: Judge me not by the color of my skin, but on the content of my character. It was awe-inspiring for a moment. While he was proud of what his achievement symbolizes for the African-American community, he preferred to be recognized not for the way he was born but for how he has chosen to live.

For his brand of Christianity.

By their works ye shall know them (Matt 7:20). Tony Dungy will be busy this month lending his time, name, and face to Christian groups who use the Bible to argue that not all people should be recognized and lauded for their character. He's headlining a fundraiser for the Indiana Family Association, a political group that, because of Biblical precepts, actively supports legislation to strip civil rights away from people like me.

The man who would prefer that people see him as a Christian first, African-American second is carrying the banner for a fundamentalist movement that 40 years ago used that same Bible to argue that black men shouldn't marry white women, that black kids shouldn't be educated in the same schools with white kids. And 150 years ago used it to argue that black men were unworthy for any life outside of slavery.

The man who has been held up as a symbol of our nation's enlightenment is simultaneously being claimed by groups who would have us revert to the dark ages. Depending on how you read his quote--Lovie Smith and I are not only the first African-American but also Christian coaches--you might get the impression that he's saying they're the first true Christian coaches to hit the Super Bowl. I certainly did when I heard it live.

I want to admire the man for breaking the color barrier, for conducting himself like a gentleman, and for contributing considerable amounts of time and money to charitable causes. But if I am to judge him by his character I must consider his entire character, and seeing him volunteer to be the poster boy for organizations that demonize gay folk as a group with no consideration for our individual characters--indeed, for the seeming conviction that there can be nothing lurking within us aside from the most perverse sin--saddens and angers me.

Tony Dungy's Christians will not judge my character. I can only judge theirs.

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