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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (R) with retired coach Tony Dungy at a news conference prior to Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, Florida. Dungy convinced disciplinarian Goodell to reinstate Michael Vick.
He's a trailblazer. The first African-American to take the top prize in his chosen profession. And, despite a rather understated demeanor, he's proven that he may be the most formidable politician in the game.
No, we're talking about Tony Dungy.
The political skills of the former Indianapolis Colts head coach -- and first black coach to win the Super Bowl -- were demonstrated this week by his ability to help get the most hated football player ever back in the NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles' signing of Michael Vick Thursday completely came out of nowhere. Nearly all of the NFL teams had said that they had no interest in signing Vick. That list included Philadelphia. Most analysts predicted that Vick would be signing with the neophyte United Football League which would start its six-game schedule in October.
Apparently it helps to have -- if not God -- at least a "Godly" man on your side. That's a perfect description of Dungy. He's respected as a straight-talking man of faith. While he doesn't discuss politics much, he doesn't avoid it either. Two years ago, he raised a bit of controversy over his support of "traditional marriage" -- i.e., between a man and a woman.
To get back into football, Vick had to get Dungy to trust him, because, for Dungy trust is everything. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made it pretty clear that he was furious at Vick for lying to him back in 2007 about the level of Vick's involvement in dog-fighting. Vick realized that Goodell wouldn't take his word alone that he was contrite over his misdeeds. But Goodell would take Dungy's. The freshly retired coach took on combined roles mentor to Vick/adviser to Goodell on Vick -- and general intermediary between Vick and the broader League. As one writer put it, Dungy has become, "the athlete whisperer."
Yet, it's also the case that Dungy wasn't acting like a sleazy agent when he said on Wednesday "I think something [on a signing]l will happen this week." Vick signed the next day.
Friday, at the big press conference, Dungy wasn't just right there, he was practically the press conference:
Andy Reid, the actual coach of the Eagles, turned the proceedings over to "Coach Dungy," who did most of the talking. It seems clear that he was the broker of this deal, not because Vick needed an agent, but because he needed a stamp of approval from a respected private citizen. He didn't have to make a pitch. The league's coaches came to Dungy for answers. Can he play? Can we trust him? Will you vouch for him? The Tony Dungy Rehabilitation Program has done a tremendous service to Michael Vick, one that few other athletes have ever been given.
If this works—and really, it already has—this could be the path to respectability that more and more athletes choose, for both honest and cynical reasons. Will Dungy become like the Jesse Jackson or Bill Clinton of sports, rushing to the scenes of crimes to give voice to the voiceless? (The difference being that Dungy sincerely wants to help other people, not just Tony Dungy's Ego..)
It's hardly likely that Dungy would avail himself of every "troubled" athlete who came. This was a unique situation (pro athletes get into trouble with the law over substance abuse, significant-other situations and so on all the time. Dog-fighting? Now, that's a bit different.) Besides, crisis management is hardly something that fits Dungy's character, as a man of character.
Somebody like Dungy can only put his reputation on the line in this manner very rarely. Which is why to be America's Greatest Politician, it's pretty much a one-shot deal.