Monday, January 12, 2009
Updated: January 14, 12:36 PM ET
Dungy's greatest work still ahead of him
By LZ Granderson
Dear Coach Dungy,
I owe you an apology.
No, I didn't root against your Colts in your playoff matchup against San Diego; nor was I pulling for Chicago in the Super Bowl.
Instead, I am apologizing for not writing a column when I should have back in 2007, and it has been gnawing at my conscience ever since.
I am sorry for not defending you when you were under fire for accepting an award from the Indiana Family Institute -- a nearly 20-year-old, conservative Christian-based organization that is currently geared toward passing a marriage amendment, similar to Prop 8 in California, in the Hoosier state.
I was not surprised by your association with the group, seeing how its sole purpose is to strengthen the family unit, a topic that is near and dear to both our hearts.
I was not surprised when you addressed the public outcry by saying, during your acceptance speech, that you believe marriage to be defined by a union of one man and one woman.
The only thing that really surprised me was my own silence. I am sorry for not stepping up to say what I know is true: You are a good man.
Before I knew I was gay, I knew I was black and as long as you have been a public figure you have been an extraordinary example of how a black man should carry himself, in good times and in bad. Victory and defeat. Triumph and tragedy.
As a double minority, I do not like to pit the societal struggles of one aspect of my identity against another. To me it's just the same song, different singer.
But seeing how I am gay and black, I have plenty of opportunities to feel offended, discriminated against, slighted and just plain done wrong if I look hard enough. In fact, finding reasons to be upset can be quite exhausting, so on occasion I will ignore the statements and actions of bigots just so I can catch a break and enjoy my life. That is what I was doing back in the winter of 2007, when you were raising money for anti-gay marriage and being widely criticized for it -- ignoring you.
But in doing so, I allowed too many of my gay brethren and sisters to dishonor all of the wonderful things you have done to combat violence and poverty within the black community.
I have talked about the numbers in previous columns, but they bear repeating: In 1980 there were 143,000 black men in prison and 463,700 in college, according to a report by the Justice Policy Institute. By 2000 there were 791,600 black men in prison and 603,032 enrolled in college. Today, black men make up 41 percent of the inmates in federal, state and local prisons, but only 4 percent of all college students, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Recently the FBI reported 10,067 arrests in murder and non-negligent manslaughter cases in 2007, of which 50 percent of the people arrested were black. Nearly 10 percent of black people arrested for murder were under age 18. That may not resonate deeply within a gay community with a predominantly white experience and mouthpiece, but for those of us who have front-row seats to this kind of self-destruction, heartbreaking doesn't begin to describe the feeling.
And since fatherlessness is the No. 1 reason why the black community is frayed, I am thankful you stress the importance of combating it. Now, obviously you don't have to be in a heterosexual marriage in order to be a present father, but I understand why you, a traditionalist within the Christian faith, promote that approach.
This is why I am apologizing for not coming to your defense. While gay marriage is an issue about equal treatment under the law, what the black community is dealing with is a crisis that threatens its very existence. As an NFL coach, you have not only talked about the crisis, you have followed your heart to do something about it -- working with some of those misguided men through prison ministry as well as through mentoring programs in Indianapolis. In retirement, you plan to do even more work and will likely have a greater impact on black men's lives working full-time to help save our community than you did in your 31 years in the NFL. I'm not suggesting your work cannot and does not stretch beyond the black community, but I believe the research illustrates a greater need there.
And at a time where the image of black men in professional sports is constantly being soiled by ignorance, selfishness and this ridiculous need for some to project a gangsta image, you, sir, are a man I tell my 12-year-old son to watch. When I bought your book, "Quiet Strength," for him to read, he reminded me he didn't like football. I told him, "I know, but this book isn't about football. This book is about the building blocks of a true American hero who happens to work in the NFL."
It's funny, you're a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, and yet your greatest work is ahead of you. My hope is one day my son and I will get the opportunity to work by your side on a project to help heal our community ... and then perhaps in the process I can show you that some gay people believe in family just as much as you do.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.