When you have fervently followed your favorite sports team for decades, you put their stars and players on an imaginary pedestal. It’s a natural outcome. As I’ve talked about before, I grew up in Pittsburgh when the city’s NFL team, the Steelers, won four Super Bowls in the 1970s. So the Steelers of that decade are much revered.
One of their biggest stars, Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, died suddenly last month, and that hurt. He was not only my favorite Steeler, but I also got to know him and was honored that he invited me to his Hall of Fame induction ceremony in the summer of 1990 that included a brunch with former NFL greats and a party that evening at the Pittsburgh Hilton, where I met so many of my heroes from those Super Bowl teams. Harris lived up to his legend.
The team was coached by Chuck Noll, who I also idolized. Noll took notice of the leadership skills and football knowledge of one of his defensive backs, Tony Dungy, and began to mentor him to become a football coach, which he did.
Dungy won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts and also helmed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during his 13-year coaching career. He entered the NFL Hall of Fame as a coach in 2016.
If you follow football, you know Dungy is now a noted NFL broadcaster and analyst with NBC. But it is what you don’t know about him that will make your blood boil. According to an in-depth, two-part piece on Outsports by Cyd Zeigler, Dungy is no friend to our community.
According to Zeigler’s piece, “Dungy ... established himself as possibly the most publicly anti-gay person in at least the recent history of the NFL, raising money to fight against same-sex marriage, and since then publicly decrying the homosexuality of gay athletes and partnering with rabidly anti-gay organizations and individuals.”
I won’t rehash all of what Zeigler wrote, you need to read his story for yourself, but I will say that he writes about Dungy saying homophobic things when Jason Collins came out in the NBA and when Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the NFL.
The most troubling aspect that was revealed, at least to me, is that Dungy is a friend and supporter of right-wing Christian nationalist Pastor Andrew Wommack, who has said that being gay is “three times worse than smoking” and gay people "ought to put a label across their forehead, 'This can be hazardous to your health.'"
Dungy has been a supporter of Wommack’s ministry, and has spoken at Wommack events, and will again support Wommack’s ministry this March at an event called Men’s Advance. Wommack’s Charis Bible College promotes antigay and anti-trans beliefs — among other things — claiming to root them in Christian doctrine.
That’s all I needed to hear about Dungy, quite frankly. But the gist of Zeigler’s articles is that NBC, which employs Dungy, knows about his virulent anti-LGBTQ+ stance and doesn’t do anything about it.
NBC wouldn’t comment on his story. Zeigler points out that a Cincinnati Reds broadcaster, Thom Brennaman, and former MLB pitcher and ESPN analyst Curt Schilling were both fired for anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric. So why is NBC silent about Dungy?
I’m sorry, Dungy might be the nicest guy in the world — and many say he is — but extolling and magnifying hate speech, which he is doing, is life-threatening. Dungy is probably one of these people who says, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” But in his complicit and outward condoning of anti-LGBTQ+ hate speech, Dungy proves he doesn’t love the sinner but rather harbors violent wishes toward the sinner. He might be aghast at hearing that, but he shouldn't be.
We all know that rising hate speech aimed at our community is directly responsible for the increase in violence against LGBTQ+ people. The Advocate’s news library is full of stories of hate crime injuries and deaths, particularly in the last year. It's been overwhelming to see it mushroom on a daily basis. Reading our news feeds, you can become numb to all the death and destruction.
Wommack is all over Twitter, thanks to nearly 80K followers who spread all his viciousness. What’s worse is that Dungy has almost 1 million, and every mention of his association with Wommack or offensive comment about us only furthers the abhorrence and ferocity. Dungy may think when he posts something about gay NFL players or appears with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, or DeSatan to us, that it's all innocent. But Dungy's words and actions reverberate.
When people who respect and admire Dungy, particularly young people, read what he says and who he prays and pals around with, they can only assume that it’s OK to hate us, because he does, and to take it a step further, it’s OK to hate us because NBC turns a blind eye. And that's when the violence starts.
Reinforcing this message is former NFL star Ryan O’Callaghan, who works with the NFL on LGBTQ+ advocacy and partnerships and is helping the league with outreach to the LGBTQ+ community. I asked O’Callaghan what he thought of Dungy. “I don’t know Tony Dungy personally, but he needs to understand his comments can be hurtful to those who look up to him and only show his ignorance,” he said. “I hope Mr. Dungy can find it in his Christian heart to stop judging and start loving his neighbor.”
Zeigler spoke to former NFL player RK Russell, who played for Dungy in Tampa Bay and who came out as bisexual in 2019, when he was a free agent. “He was someone I looked up to, being a Black coach and a coach who wasn’t the stereotypical get-in-your-face-and-curse-you-out. It’s disheartening when someone you admire doesn’t line up with how they feel. It’s upsetting,” Russell said.
And that’s exactly how I feel. Even though he made his mark as a player with my team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he helped them win one of our coveted six Super Bowls, I can no longer put this man on a pedestal. Pardon the pun, but he doesn't get a pass on this one. Instead, I’m dumping Dungy into the dustbin of the NFL's worst-moments history until he apologizes for all the vindictiveness toward me, a devoted Steelers fan, and my community.
Dungy will be calling the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars wild-card game on NBC Saturday. As a football fan, I want to watch. But as a gay man, I can’t watch — or listen — if Dungy is broadcasting. I won’t hear the words coming out of his mouth; instead, when he opens his mouth, all I will hear is hate.
Do I watch the game and grit my teeth? Do I watch the game with the sound on mute? Do I even watch any more football on NBC if it involves Dungy? The answer to all these questions is no. I’ll find a way to stay up to speed on the game, and I'm grateful that I'm now up to speed on what's going on with Tony Dungy.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.