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Perspective: The Tony Dungy controversy is a wake-up call for people of faith

The former NFL coach and committed Christian has earned the right to be believed and to live out his faith

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NBC “Sunday Night Football” host Tony Dungy during an NFL game between the Buffalo Bills and the Green Bay Packers, Oct. 30, 2022.

NBC “Sunday Night Football” host Tony Dungy during an NFL football game between the Buffalo Bills and the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Orchard Park, N.Y.

Bryan Bennett, Associated Press

By all accounts, Tony Dungy is one of the nicest people in the sports and entertainment world, if not one of the nicest people on the planet. How nice is he? He’s so nice that even a column castigating him for a recent controversial tweet called him “Nice guy” in the headline, albeit in sardonic air quotes.

The first Black coach to win a Super Bowl, Dungy was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016 and is now an analyst for NBC. But he’s equally well known and beloved for what he has done away from the football field. Dungy and his wife, Lauren, to whom he’s been married for 40 years, are the parents of 11 and have fostered more than 100 children, saying they made a decision together to never say “no” when a child needed a home.

They also have a foundation that helps children develop a love of reading, and Dungy is active with the organization he co-founded, All Pro Dad, which helps men to become better fathers.

In short, Dungy is one of the most altruistic and genuinely likable people in American culture. A month ago, it would have been hard to imagine anyone less likely be in the crosshairs of cancel culture. But suddenly, there he was, dragged in by an unfortunate tweet about gender identification, and by the audacity of going to the March for Life and talking about supporting “unborn babies who don’t have a voice.”

It was not surprising that Keith Olbermann said Dungy should be fired for doing something that was completely consistent with his evangelical faith; Olbermann is a professional provocateur and savaging conservatives is part of his brand.

But it was somewhat surprising that so many others were quick to conclude that being a conservative Christian (aka, a “right-wing zealot,” as religious conservatives are called by some on the left) should somehow be disqualifying for being a network commentator — especially since faith is so prominent within the NFL.

As the Rev. Derwin Gray, a former NFL player, wrote recently for Deseret, “Faith, especially the Christian faith, is vibrant in the NFL. Some of the godliest people I’ve ever encountered are my former NFL teammates.”

Even after Dungy deleted his tweet about gender identification and apologized for it, he was criticized by some as being insincere, and by others for apologizing at all.

But his apology was clearly heartfelt and much more believable than the one issued Monday by M&M’s when the candymaker pulled back from controversial changes to its characters, saying, “now we get it — even a candy’s shoes can be polarizing. Which was the last thing M&Ms wanted since we’re all about bringing people together.”

Actually, M&Ms is all about selling candy and making money for its parent company, not bringing people together. In contrast, Dungy, who wrote in his apology, “As a Christian, I want to be a force of love to everyone” has earned the right to be believed and to live out his faith, although doing just that appears to be increasingly fraught with each passing year.

As Rod Dreher, author of “The Benedict Option,” has written, “American Christianity is entering a new era — one in which religious faith is no longer a given; one in which a creeping ideological totalitarianism is hostile toward traditionalists who dissent from the claims of today’s progressive brand of politics.”

The hostility with which Dungy has been treated over the past few days should be a wake-up call for religious conservatives who believe that “post-Christian America” lies in some hazy, distant future. In fact, right now we live in a society in which “evangelical Christian” is seen by many people as a synonym for “right-wing zealot” and “hate-filled bigot.”

Meanwhile, as the Dungy controversy was playing out, you could find religious conservatives bickering with each other on “controversies” ranging from Beth Moore’s dislike of Jonathan Edwards to the Rev. Tim Keller’s tweet saying there’s “nothing more important” for a Christian to do than read the Bible all the way through every year. It’s not quite fiddling while Rome burns, but disturbingly close.

The good news is, like J.K. Rowling and Chris Pratt, Dungy will be just fine. He may yet find himself in some diminished role at NBC since everything he’s ever tweeted or said is being scrutinized by those bent on his cancellation. But even if that happens, Dungy still retains everything that matters: The outsized family that loves him and knows his heart.

In an interview on All Pro Dad, Dungy was asked how he wanted his children to remember him. He replied that he wanted them to know how special they were and that he had followed the Lord.

“Twenty years from now, if one of my kids says, you know what, my dad loved me, my dad taught me how to follow the Lord, my dad was always around, I’d be a very happy man.”