Commentary

Tony Dungy, football's new Big Bother

Do fans really want ex-coach using bully pulpit to rip Rex Ryan for his HBO F-bombs?

Updated: August 21, 2010, 8:27 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

The Tony Dungy Bully Pulpit had already turned into an interesting and unique place in sports even before Dungy couldn't resist publicly scolding Jets coach Rex Ryan this week for dropping a blitzkrieg of F-bombs in the first episode of the HBO reality show "Hard Knocks." Dungy has taken principled stands before, of course. But this time -- how can we say this politely -- what the #$@&% was Dungy thinking?

As Rex might say, Dungy is barely a freaking year into his frigging post-coaching career as a NBC football analyst, and yet he has already emerged as the closest thing there is to The Conscience of Football. Now the question is, does the league or NFL fans really want that kind of watchdog?

The reaction to some of Dungy's stances makes you think no.

[+] EnlargeTony Dungy
(AP Photo/Matt RourkeTony Dungy took heat for his support of disgraced quarterback Michael Vick.

Dungy's most controversial position since retiring from the Indianapolis Colts was probably helping disgraced quarterback Michael Vick return to the NFL after Vick's dog-fighting conviction. Last season, plenty of people applauded when Dungy forcefully used his NBC platform to criticize the unforgivably low number of African-American head coaches at the NFL and college levels. Think about it: You hardly ever see a major network TV analyst unequivocally step up like that. But Dungy's off-the-air work to stop same-sex couples from having the legal right to marry hasn't been as widely well-received.

As a football analyst, Dungy doesn't apologize for maintaining some bias about the Colts. The Jets aren't the first former opponent he's struck a nerve with, either. Last season, Dungy irked the Dallas Cowboys by saying they had "no chance" to beat then-undefeated New Orleans in a regular-season game. The Cowboys won, then let everyone know that Dungy's dismissiveness bothered them.

"He said we had 'no chance'?" Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo repeated. "I mean, wow -- none?"

Dungy is a man of good deeds and longstanding convictions. He has a right to express his opinion about Ryan's profane language any way he wants.

Where Dungy went off the rails was suggesting that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should censure Ryan because the Jets' head coach doesn't represent the league well.

That was ridiculous.

The NFL has celebrated and marketed the league's rough edges and bad-boy characters for as long as the league has been around. The headhunters have always been as elevated as the guys who wear milk mustaches.

Dungy has to or should have known, too, that "Hard Knocks" is getting production help from NFL Films, which the league owns. So the NFL is very involved in every aspect of the HBO series. No wonder Goodell hasn't leaped up and accepted Dungy's suggestion to discipline Ryan. Goodell hasn't said much of anything about it publicly.

The shame of it is, if Dungy wants to have a bully pulpit, there are so many more important issues Dungy could throw his moral weight behind, starting with the fight between the NFL and its retired players over medical benefits, or the current debate about what the NFL can do to stop agents from corrupting college programs.

But Dungy chose to inflame F-Bombgate instead. And now look: So far it seems the garrulous Rex has outdistanced the professorial Dungy in most of the man-on-the-street opinion polls -- especially the votes taken after Ryan admitted he didn't like how Dungy "judged" him, and then the two of them started playing phone tag and trying to set up a play date to talk things over "man to man."

Rex + talking = Uh oh.

What do you think will happen next?

Will Dungy miraculously be able to convince Rex that his potty mouth is unacceptable? Or will Rex slip up in Dungy's presence and forget to say "H-E-double toothpicks" or "Holy smokes" instead of all those F-words? (I'm no doctor, but I know this: There is no lap-band surgery for cussing, no matter how much Dungy might wish there was one.)

Here's another problem: If Dungy already doesn't like the way Ryan cusses, how do you think Dungy might regard some of the spinoff behaviors it's spawned among the Jets?

Jay Feely, the former Jets kicker who's now with the Arizona Cardinals, could barely stop laughing the other day as he told an anecdote on a radio show about how the Jets players found Ryan such a prolific swearer last season they actually started a pool and bet each other how many times Ryan would drop the F-word in some of his pregame speeches.

What was the typical winning total or over/under guess for one Rex speech?

"Fifty six [F-bombs]," Feely said, bursting into laughter again.

Freaking hard to believe. But true.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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