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Defending Dungy

NYU historian Jonathan Zimmerman penned an interesting column criticizing Colts' head coach Tony Dungy. Unfortunately, he seems to have put words into Dungy's mouth to make his point.

Zimmerman is troubled by the broad social phenomenon of "born-again Christians" claiming that theirs is the only correct way to follow God. And he accuses Tony Dungy of making that claim in the wake of his Super Bowl XLI win. Zimmerman writes:

In a post-game interview on Sunday, Dungy was asked about the "social significance" of the game - that Dungy and the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith were the first black coaches to face off in a Super Bowl. Dungy acknowledged the importance of race, but said that the coaches' shared faith was even more noteworthy.

"Lovie Smith and I [are] not only the first two African Americans," Dungy told CBS's Jim Nantz, "but Christian coaches showing that you can win doing it the Lord's way."

Huh? Weren't any prior Super Bowl coaches Christian?

By my count, every single one was. Indeed, the championship trophy that Dungy hoisted on Sunday is named after Vince Lombardi, a devout Catholic who spent two years training for the priesthood.

What distinguishes Dungy and Smith is their born-again Christianity, not their "Christianity" per se. And the problem starts when we lose sight of this distinction.

Actually, the trouble comes with his interpretation of Dungy's sentence. In reality, the sentence is ambiguous, i.e. it is consistent with several interpretations. However, not only does Zimmerman not acknowledge this ambiguity, he also selects the interpretation that paints Dungy in the most intolerant possible light (and that enables him to use the coach to make a broad point about born-again Christians).

Dungy's sentence could indeed mean: Lovie Smith and I are (a) the first two African American coaches to coach in the Super Bowl, and (b) more importantly, the first two Christian coaches to coach in the Super Bowl.

But it could also mean: Lovie Smith and I are (a) the first two African American coaches to coach in the Super Bowl, and (b) more importantly, two Christian coaches who coached in the Super Bowl.

The difference between them boils down to the extent of the word "first." Does it apply to both clauses, or does it apply to just the clause regarding African American coaches? The first interpretation indeed implies that Tony Dungy is claiming that all previous Super Bowl coaches were not Christian, but the second does not.

Again, I think the sentence is ambiguous in its construction. Taking the sentence itself as our only data point, both interpretations are consistent with the wording. But here Zimmerman has made his first mistake. He takes it to be pointing necessarily to the first interpretation, rather than to either the first or the second.

The second mistake is his failure to take in the context of the comment, namely Tony Dungy himself. The man has been in the league for many years. He is not a bomb-thrower. He seems to be loved by pretty much everybody who has ever met him: does he seem like the type of man to make this kind of statement? My answer is a firm no. I think that Dungy - who was interviewed by Jim Nance after the game (read: he had other things on his mind than the social/political/moral significance of his victory, and might therefore not be speaking with maximum precision) - meant something like the latter interpretation, but his meaning was lost in the ambiguity of the actual phrasing.

In other words, I don't think the mild-mannered Dungy was using Nance's question to offer a quickie Jeremiad about the destination of the souls of other ring-bearing coaches. Rather, I think he was doing what he was doing all week -- using questions about the race factor to follow the commandment of Matthew 28:19, to proclaim to the world that, first and foremost, he is a follower of Jesus Christ. I would note that Zimmerman ostensibly has no problem with this. Dungy "has every right to believe what he wants and to recruit others for that belief. That's a no-brainer."

I'll take this a step further to say that Zimmerman's chosen interpretation has no leg to stand on - if we take it in the context of what Dungy had recently said about previous championship coaches. Tony Dungy is - in many respect - a student of the legendary (and vastly underrated) Chuck Noll, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1969 to 1991 (and Tony Dungy's coach in the '77 and '78 seasons, the latter of which saw the Steelers win their third Super Bowl). This was an oft-covered topic in the lead-up to the Super Bowl. Rob Musselman of the Toledo Blade has a nice write-up on the influence of Noll on Dungy, and how quick the latter is to credit the former. His "Tampa 2" defense is in many respects a modification/amplification of the '75 "Steel Curtain," but also Dungy picked up moral and strategic cues from Noll on how to manage a team. Noll was not a bomb-thrower. Noll was a coach who kept his family close to heart. Noll was an even-keel guy. And so on. Dungy learned a lot from Noll about how to lead a football team calmly and decently - both on and off the field. He believes he owes the man a lot, and during the pre-game festivities of the last few weeks, he never seemed to hestitate to lavish praise upon the coach with the most Super Bowl wins. (I can't blame him. As a Terrible Towel waving, "Steeler Polka" singing, black-and-gold bleeding, "yoi and double yoi!" Steelers fan, I can't praise Noll and the '70s Steelers enough!)

So, here's a question for Professor Zimmerman: do you think Tony Dungy really meant to imply, in that quotation, that Chuck Noll - in many respects his model for a good and decent head coach - is going to h-e-double-toothpicks? Statistically speaking, if we are talking about a "Super Bowl champion coach," most likely we are talking about Noll, who won more than anybody else. So - is that what Dungy thinks of him?

I don't think so.

I am guessing that you don't either, professor -- at least not now that you know a bit more of the story.

My inference is that Zimmerman never came across the affectionate comments Dungy had been making about Noll all week (or at least did not identify them as being a falsifying instance of his hypothesis), which in turn means that he rushed out an op-ed blasting Dungy's character without actually doing sufficient research into said character.

Professor Zimmerman: you owe Coach Dungy an apology. It seems to me that your incorrect interpretation, while surely not willful, is predicated in large part upon not doing the research that Dungy clearly deserved and that you - as a scholarly historian - know how to conduct. If you are going to characterize a man's moral/political/social beliefs, don't you think you owe him the courtesy of checking out his personal story just a little bit?

I find all of this very frustrating. Zimmerman has put words into Dungy's mouth to personalize a broad-based social-political-cultural complaint he has against a segment of the population: the "born-agains." Tony Dungy has been a Steeler, a 49er, a Chief, a Viking, a Bucaneer, and a Colt. He has never been a Straw Man.

Don't treat him as such, Professor.