TAMPA — In a previous life, Tony Dungy impulsively — almost petulantly — quit football.
Prior to his senior season at Parkside High in Jackson, Mich., Dungy and his best friend were strong candidates to be elected captains on a team that never previously had two African-American captains. Dungy was elected. His buddy wasn't.
"So I'm sure, I'm positive, that this is racism," Dungy said Thursday evening from the stage of The Crossing Church on Tampa's eastern fringe. "I believe the coach doesn't count the votes right because the school doesn't want two black captains."
So Dungy walked. His dad, one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, objected but let his son make up his own mind. Then Dungy's junior high assistant principal caught wind of what occurred.
"He said, 'Even if that's true, why would you let someone else take away something from you that you enjoy doing?'" Dungy recalled. "And if it hadn't been for him, I wouldn't be sitting here today."
The moral of Dungy's anecdote — meet in the middle of the racism issue for thought and discussion instead of standing defiantly in one corner — was at the crux of Thursday night's "Under Our Skin" forum on race and faith.
The Christian-themed event, moderated by ESPN anchor Sage Steele, attracted a handful of prominent sports names as well as a live crowd of roughly 400 and a live-stream audience. Many panelists cited Scripture when discussing solutions to the nation's ongoing issue with racial strife.
Dungy pointed to Christianity's "greatest commandment" (loving others as yourself).
Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson said, "The No. 1 thing I say we do as believers is pray."
NFL Today host James Brown, an ordained minister, said God has provided a "game plan" for tackling hatred and racism in his "playbook."
"The root cause of it all is sin," Watson said. "The world doesn't want to hear it, but it doesn't take a mental giant to figure it all out."
The forum's brainchild, Watson authored an impassioned Facebook post —- expressing anger, frustration, embarrassment, sadness and ultimately encouragement — in the Ferguson, Mo., aftermath.
The post has since attracted more than 860,000 "likes," and prompted Watson to write a book bearing the same title as Thursday night's forum.
"A lot of times, we see something that happens and we're not worried about the truth, we're worried about what corner we're gonna get in," Watson said. "Am I gonna get in that corner by the exit sign, or am I gonna get in that corner by this camera over here? And I'm not gonna get anywhere in the middle."
Others joining Watson for the 3-1/2-hour event were former Bucs running back Warrick Dunn, Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel, new USF coach Charlie Strong and former LSU women's soccer player (and New York Times bestselling author) Mo Isom.
They spoke of accountability, of listening to others with the intent of understanding instead of hastily responding. They urged listeners to remain engaged with the issue and to have dialogue with those in their "sphere of influence," instead of lashing out at strangers via social media.
And they warned of the dangers of being easily offended, which Brown called "the bait of Satan."
"I was embarrassed by the violent protests and the looting, and people burning people's cars because of what happened (in Ferguson)," Watson said.
"Now, can I condemn that and can I also say, 'You know what, I don't understand why it takes 17 bullets in Chicago to kill a black man on the street?' They can both be true. As black people and as white people, we need to look at truth for what it is. And it's not tainted by a certain perspective. It is what it is."
Contact Joey Knight at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.