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Original Issue

Hard Path of Righteousness

Scold or sage, Tony Dungy takes on the big issues with sincerity

Believe it or not, Tony Dungy does not awaken every morning to a chorus of hosannas, grab his halo off the nightstand and prepare for another day of deciding who is and who isn't leading a virtuous life. It's understandable if you imagined that sort of scene, since Dungy, the ex-Colts coach turned NBC analyst, has found himself cast—or has cast himself, some would say—as football's high priest, the oracle who passes judgment on all moral questions.

With the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger and the Jets' Santonio Holmes returning from suspensions last week, questions about punishment and contrition are in the air, the sort of issues that are Dungy's specialty. Since leaving the sideline, Dungy has weighed in on issues both serious and trivial. Does Michael Vick deserve forgiveness? Was Reggie Bush right to return his Heisman Trophy? Should Rex Ryan cut back on the f bombs? (He votes "yes" on all three.) He has called for compassion toward some players, such as LeGarrette Blount, the Tampa Bay running back who punched an opposing player while in college at Oregon last year, and stiffer punishment for others, such as Jets receiver Braylon Edwards, who in Dungy's view should have been benched for a game, not just a quarter, after his DUI arrest.

Some players, like Blount and Vick, have turned to him for counseling; stepping into the Dungy confessional and earning his absolution is still a great way for a sports figure to buff up a tarnished reputation. But lately Dungy himself hasn't been held in quite such high esteem, at least not as widely. Though still admired by many as one of the classiest, most highly principled men in sports, he's been bashed by critics who think he's too fond of wagging his finger at the world, trying to force his own standards on others. A Google search of Dungy's name with the term "holier than thou" yielded 871 hits last week, and Deadspin recently shredded him for his supposed sanctimony with a post headlined, TONY DUNGY IS AN INSUFFERABLE S---.

That's harsh stuff considering that Dungy hasn't done anything besides offer his counsel to troubled players and coaches, and give measured, thoughtful opinions when asked. "I'm not trying to be anyone's judge or conscience," he says. "I don't feel that I'm saying or doing anything different from what I always have. NBC has given me more of a platform, but I've always been passionate about doing what's right, about Christian values, and I've never hidden that. I really haven't changed."

What has changed? Now that he's no longer Indy's head man, Dungy has a freer rein, unconcerned with the taboo against a coach sticking his nose into another team's business. He's a media member, paid to give his opinions, and the more often he speaks his mind, the more likely he is to encounter opposition. "People are going to disagree with me sometimes, which is fine," he says. "I'm not suggesting that I have all the answers."

Dungy does come off as somewhat prudish at times, as when he objected to Ryan's swearing on the HBO series Hard Knocks. But even then, it wasn't as if he searched for a soapbox from which to rip the Jets' coach. "I probably would never have commented on Rex Ryan if I hadn't been asked," he says. "But Dan Patrick asked me on his radio show about my thoughts. I answered honestly, and it turned into a much bigger thing than I ever expected."

The vitriol aimed at Dungy is hard to fathom. He has none of the bombast of, say, a Limbaugh or a Sharpton; he's not an attention junkie and doesn't revel in stirring up controversy. He has the ability, increasingly rare among those who consider themselves social commentators, to criticize without mockery or sarcasm. How exactly does this make him insufferable?

Give Dungy credit at least for carving out an original role in his broadcast work. We hardly needed another ex-coach cackling and back-slapping on the pregame shows, or spouting clichés while he waits to get back on the sideline. What Dungy lacks in flash he makes up for in substance. Agree with him or don't, but give him points as well for raising some of the big questions. Listen to Dungy for a while, and you may find yourself examining your own ideas of fairness or redemption, of retribution versus rehabilitation, not just how to attack the two-deep zone.

But it may be that some of us prefer our sages to be a little more flawed; their opinions and criticisms seem less judgmental that way. When Charles Barkley, for instance, takes LeBron James to task for the way he handled his free agency decision, it sounds less preachy because we know that Barkley has made plenty of bad choices of his own. When someone with a blemish-free background like Dungy says Edwards got off too lightly for drinking and driving, it can sound as though he's implying some sort of moral superiority.

Could it be then, that Dungy's virtue makes some of us uneasy? Maybe we're so unaccustomed to a good man simply trying to apply his own set of values to the world around him that his critics have been reading him wrong. You needn't believe he is always right to appreciate his efforts to do right. There's nothing sanctimonious about that.

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"I've always been PASSIONATE ABOUT DOING WHAT'S RIGHT," Dungy says. "I've never hidden that."