Thursday, August 27, 2009

Breaking the Chain: Is NBC Right to Separate Dungy From Vick?

NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol is putting the media on notice: Michael Vick is no longer Tony Dungy's pet reclamation project.

Characterizing Dungy as "a mentor to get [Vick] through that transition from prison to his re-entry to football," Ebersol is trying to remind everyone that Dungy is now a journalist first and a camp counselor, spiritual advisor, puppeteer, whatever you want to call him, second. Which is all well and good, as it's simply Ebersol looking to protect the investment he's made in Dungy.

But it begs the question: How closely does this jibe with Dungy's personal priorities?

If it all came down to Tony having to choose between an athlete needing some spiritual guidance and his Football Night in America analyst's chair...who's to say that Dungy wouldn't just tell Ebersol, "Go with Christ?" (Which is devout-Christian for "Get bent," or so I've heard.)

One thing that struck me after reading Dungy's first book, "Quiet Strength," was how little of it really ended up as a "football book." So much of it was based around more spiritual concerns that it made Tony seem like the kind of guy who would simply walk far away from football after his coaching days concluded. It was also clear that Dungy never intended to be a coaching lifer, feeling instead like he had some kind of higher purpose than implementing new zone blitzes.

The mere fact that he became an NFL analyst was a bit surprising, and honestly, it doesn't seem like a job that fits him very well. He's not an attention-getting, demonstrative analyst, like other ex-coaches such as Jimmy Johnson or Mike Ditka, and that can work against him in a time crunch like we find at halftime, where each game gets shoehorned into 20 or so seconds.

Football has given Dungy a platform from which to convey his spiritual views to a mass audience, and keeping his foot in the door of the NFL makes it seem like he's afraid of losing that name recognition. The cynics are already deciding (see post-article comments behind this link) that Dungy attached himself to Vick for his own benefit much more than Vick's, anyway.

There's no doubt that a journalist's having an advisory connection to an active player constitutes a conflict of interest. That's another perfectly legitimate reason for NBC to make sure that he distances himself. But the operative phrase there should be, "distances himself." A statement of future-endeavors well-wishing from Dungy to Vick needs to come from Dungy himself. Ebersol making the announcement of Tony scaling back his work with Vick carries a very confrontational tone, almost like the announcement is as much to Dungy as about him. Kind of a "back away from him or you're fired" sort of vibe comes off this fairly terse statement.

I'm sure there are several other former coaches that would queue up in a second for a chance to fill Tony's chair on Sunday nights, and personally, I'm not sure I would mind seeing some of them do it. Tony Dungy DOES seem like a man who has greater things on his mind than whether Matt Ryan's learned to carve up zone defenses, and it may be time for him to concentrate on some of them.

He seems a better fit as a minister than a talking head, anyway. And Lord knows he'll do greater good that way.

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