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Sports Business

Did Dungy go too far in fight against foul language?

August 18, 2010
KEYWORDS Sports Business

To swear or not to swear? That has become the question. At least in National Football League circles.

Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy—the holy man of the NFL—this week came down on N.Y. Jets coach Rex Ryan for using too much foul language while handling his coaching duties. Dungy took it a step further and said he wouldn’t hire Ryan (or presumably any other coach who needs their mouths washed out with soap).

I think this is a brave battle for Dungy to fight. A wise one too. I’m not saying Jim Irsay is a saint, but I think it says a lot about him, that he specifically sought Tony Dungy, and only Tony Dungy, as his coach in 2002.

This isn’t the first go-around for the to swear or not debate.

The late all-pro defender Reggie White, another notable holy man, insisted that teammates, coaches and opponents not swear “at him.”

And it’s not the first time a coach with Indiana ties has been in the midst of this foul-mouthed controversy. No, I’m not talking about Bob Knight here, though I could be.

In this case, I’m talking about former Indiana Pacers coach Larry Brown, another legendary cusser in the professional sports ranks. National Basketball Association all-star David Robinson, who like Dungy is a devout Christian, asked, then insisted, that Brown not swear at him or in front of him. Brown coached Robinson in San Antonio from 1989-91, two seasons before he showed up in Indiana in 1993.

Just about everyone in sports it seems, has an opinion on this. Former Notre Dame and Philadelphia Eagles player Mike Golic, and now co-host of Mike and Mike radio show, said on the air today, that Dungy was out of line in asking NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to take action against Ryan. Golic almost boastfully admitted on the air that he uses swear words on a relatively regular basis.

Maybe Golic was joking, but Rex’s father, former Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, was not. Yesterday, the elder Ryan, himself a hot-head, basically told Dungy to stuff it.

“Well, it’s none of Dungy’s business,” Buddy Ryan said.

Except that it is. It’s everyone’s business who has a stake in the NFL—and professional sports. Unfortunately, I’m not sure those folks running those businesses realize it. Golic says cussing is simply part of sports’ culture, and it’s a culture, I think, that over time could erode the fan base.

I’m not going to argue the anti-swearing tact on moral grounds, though I could. But I will argue that allowing swearing to permeate the culture of sports is bad business.

First, the cussing took place on a nationally televised show which aired on HBO. Yes, it’s cable, but still, I’m not sure that’s the image people want their kids to see and hear—or want to see and hear themselves.

If it’s part of the culture, then it’s not confined to the locker room, out of the earshot of people who pay to watch the product. I’ve sat courtside and fieldside at more than a few sporting events and had my ears set on fire by a profanity-laced tirade. Golic this morning laughed about being caught on TV dropping the worst kind of cuss word. Again, not funny. Not from a business standpoint.

Slowly over time that sort of behavior erodes an organization’s—or an individual’s—good brand. Exhibit A; Bob Knight. I don’t want to pick on Knight, but just think of what his brand would be if not for his decades of boorish behavior. His numerous good deeds for this state now almost get overlooked in a blur of cuss words, questionable comments and childish acts.

The NFL is so incredibly cautious about protecting the brand of its “shield,” that a million different kinds of player celebrations are illegal after touchdowns. But a coach—or I suppose a player—dropping the foulest kind of cuss words like they were going out of style is just part of the culture. Eventually, fans (especially those with kids) will ask themselves if that’s the kind of culture they want to be a part of.

Yes, the NFL is the most profitable, powerful professional sports league in North America—by a wide margin. That didn’t happen overnight. It took a lot of bricklaying to build that fiefdom.

Rome, after all, wasn’t built in a day.

It didn’t fall in a day, either. But fall it did.

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