In the shadow of Roe v. Wade’s demise, former NFL coach and current NBC football analyst Tony Dungy engaged in what amounts to a provocative end zone dance to gaudily celebrate the end of women’s reproductive freedom. He preached at the annual March for Life 2023, which took place on Washington DC’s National Mall. Even by the tacky and tawdry standards of right-wing evangelical proselytizing, Dungy’s tone-deaf sermon was vile.
To impose his religious beliefs, Dungy shamelessly exploited his platform to milk the on-field, near-death experience of Buffalo Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin. Dungy began by saying, “It’s amazing to me that God actually used football to shine some light on the subject of life for all of us.”
So, in the coach’s worldview, a loving God decided to stop Hamlin’s heart in the middle of a football stadium, to convert people to Christianity? I suppose churches selling cookies and hosting Bible readings weren’t winning over enough hearts, so God switched his marketing strategy and went straight for the heart attack. Nice deity you have there, Dungy. How truly inspiring.
Dungy continued: “It could have been tragic, but something miraculous happened. The team medical staff rushed out, they got Demar’s heart started again…After the accident everybody on that field was praying…Well those prayers were answered. Demar’s recovering now and he’s home. He’s been released from the hospital.”
Hamlin was rescued by modern medicine, a byproduct of The Enlightenment, which was vociferously fought, at the time, by the church. The New York Times reports:
The University of Cincinnati Medical Center sends seven physicians to every Bengals home game. The center also sends paramedics, respiratory therapists and an ambulance crew.
Clearly, forethought and diligent preparation ensured that Hamlin would receive immediate care. One can’t prove that prayer was irrelevant, as I suspect. But, if fundamentalists like Dungy truly believe their prayers work, they should petition the NFL to keep platoons of high-priced physicians away from future games. It’s a good way to test the power of the prayer circle.
While Dungy and his cult following were peddling the notion that Hamlin was touched by the hand of God, it was the hands of many doctors and nurses that truly saved him.
And thus it began — an elaborate process of treating a trauma patient that requires “teams of teams”…In the first few hours, a severe trauma patient like Mr. Hamlin is physically touched by as many as 50 people. By the end of the first 24 hours, that number swells to 100 people.
Dungy then engaged on a neat little right wing Christian rhetorical trick. He essentially used the sophistic argument that “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The intent is to portray nonbelievers as deceived phonies – who drop their rejection of religion when under intense pressure. During his sermon Dungy said:
“But you know what, that wasn’t the miracle [Hamlin surviving]. The real reaction was the reaction of everyone to that. The announcers on the broadcast, what did they say, ‘All we can do is pray’…Even people who weren’t necessarily religious got together and called on God. Well, that should be encouraging to us because that’s exactly why we are here today.”
When a traumatic event occurs, many people say “Oh, God” or “let’s pray” due to the limitations of the English language, not because they have seen the light. People are just as likely to scream “oh, shit” in a moment of crisis. Does that mean that they are promoting defecation?
What Dungy spewed was vulgar and uncouth. He bastardized a moment of shared grief and potential national unity to impose his unpopular agenda. In doing so, he created disunity in a nation that has already been torn asunder by those who engage in bad faith.
Dungy then manipulated an emotional situation to falsely portray himself and other fundamentalists as downtrodden victims.
“Back when I was coaching in the 1990’s, a few Christian players got together and said, ‘we want to pray after the game.’ And we actually got a memo from the NFL office that said, ‘don’t let your players do that, if they do that you’ll be fined because that’s not appropriate. Can you believe that?’”
The NFL is a workplace that aims to treat all employees equally, not provide special rights and privileges to fundamentalists. The rules are meant to stop proselytizing predators, like Dungy, from abusing their positions of power to create oppressive “pray to play” schemes. Athletes should be judged solely on merit, not on their ability to memorize Dungy’s favorite Bible passages.
In the case of openly gay football player Michael Sam this wasn’t hypothetical. After coming out in 2014, Sam, a superstar linebacker with University of Missouri, inexplicably plummeted in the NFL draft. When he was finally chosen by the St Louis Rams, Dungy helped undermine Sam’s career by telling the media that he wouldn’t want Sam on his team because he would be a distraction.
Under Dungy’s loopy logic, shouldn’t he resign as a sportscaster for NBC? If he wants to preach on Sunday’s, he should work at a church, instead of serving as a distraction by constantly injecting his agenda into football.
It’s worth noting that the same Dungy who sabotaged Michael Sam’s career, urged the forgiveness of Michael Vick, the star quarterback sent to prison for dog fighting. He also supported Ray Rice, the All-Pro running back who was booted from the NFL for slugging his girlfriend.
Adding to Dungy’s moral morass, earlier in the week he brought up the debunked anti-transgender lie that, “some school districts are putting litter boxes in school bathrooms for students who identify as cats.”
While Dungy believes he’s an effective Christian missionary, it’s morally compromised hypocrites like him that are destroying their own religion. Lifeway Research reports:
4,500 Protestant churches closed in 2019, the last year data is available, with about 3,000 new churches opening, according to Lifeway Research. It was the first time the number of churches in the US hadn’t grown since the evangelical firm started studying the topic.
In 2017 Lifeway surveyed young adults aged between 18 and 22 who had attended church regularly, for at least a year during high school. The firm found that seven out of 10 had stopped attending church regularly.
“…One of the top answers was church members seem to be judgmental or hypocritical,” said Scott McConnell, executive director at Lifeway Research. “And so the younger generation just doesn’t feel like they’re being accepted in a church environment or some of their choices aren’t being accepted by those at church.”
About a quarter of the young adults who dropped out of church said they disagreed with their church’s stance on political and social issues, McConnell said.
Ironically, by turning his religion into a political football, Dungy is helping to empty the pews, which ensures that fewer people in the future will hear his shallow, self-serving, toxic message. Can we get an “amen” for that?