By Alexander Reed Kelly
“We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.”
What would you do if your boss said those words? Speak up? Be silent? File it away for future recall? That’s the predicament former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe says he faced after he began speaking out in defense of the political rights of gays and lesbians during the 2012 NFL season.
Kluwe gave his account of events in a statement posted Thursday to the Gawker-owned sports website Deadspin. During the summer of 2012, he accepted an offer from the group Minnesotans for Marriage Equality to lend his public prestige to the battle against a bill that would ban gay marriage in the state. Thanks no doubt in part to Kluwe’s voice, the amendment was voted down and gay marriage is now legal in the North Star State.
Before he joined the campaign, however, Kluwe consulted the team’s legal department. He was given the green light to speak as a private citizen and did several radio spots and appeared at a dinner sponsored by the group.
On Sept. 7, 2012, Kluwe came to the defense of then-Baltimore Ravens linebacker, fellow gay rights spokesman and former Truthdigger of the Week Brendon Ayanbadejo. The following day, Kluwe said, Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier castigated him, telling him he “needed to be quiet, and stop speaking out on this stuff.” When Kluwe politely refused, Frazier intoned—in what one can easily imagine to be a pathetic moment of cliched faux wisdom—that “a wise coach” once told him “there are two things you don’t talk abut in the NFL, politics and religion.” Kluwe again refused to stop commenting on the gay rights issue, to which the coach responded, “If that’s what you need to do.”
Two days later Kluwe got the blessing of Vikings owner Zygi Wilf. “Chris, I’m proud of what you’ve done,” Kluwe said Wilf told him. “Please feel free to keep speaking out. I just came from my son’s best friend’s wedding to his partner in New York, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”
As the dates roll on, Kluwe recalls being summoned to Frazier’s office again; the team’s refusal to pass along media attempts to get ahold of him; the increasingly hate-filled language of Mike Priefer, the Vikings special-teams coordinator quoted in the opening of this piece; and the cryptic text messages he received from an unknown source telling him to “fly under the radar please,” messages that turned out to be from Rick Spielman, the team’s general manager. Regardless of Kluwe’s solid kicking record, Priefer berated him time and again about his abilities, and replacement punters were called in to try out for his spot.
Despite being “statistically speaking, the best punter in Vikings history,” in the spring of 2013 Kluwe was pushed out by another hire. In a final meeting, Frazier told Kluwe what a good player he had been before he was escorted from the building.
In the roughly nine months that have passed since he was fired, Kluwe has been repeatedly asked whether the Vikings management chucked him because of his activism. “My answer, verbatim,” he writes, “was always, ‘I honestly don’t know, because I’m not in those meetings with the coaches and administrative people.’ ” But in his Deadspin account he asserts, “It’s my belief, based on everything that happened over the course of 2012, that I was fired by Mike Priefer, a bigot who didn’t agree with the cause I was working for, and two cowards, Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman, both of whom knew I was a good punter and would remain a good punter for the foreseeable future, as my numbers over my eight-year career had shown, but who lacked the fortitude to disagree with Mike Priefer on a touchy subject matter.” Kluwe hopes Priefer will be fired and never allowed to coach at any level of institutionalized sports ever again. “It’s inexcusable that someone would use his status as a teacher and a role model to proselytize on behalf of his own doctrine of intolerance, and I hope he never gets another opportunity to pass his example along to anyone else.
“I also hope that Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are the people they truly profess themselves to be,” Kluwe adds.
Presumably as a result of his outspokenness, Kluwe is currently unable to find a football job. “It’s clear to me that no matter how much I want to prove I can play,” he writes, “I will no longer punt in the NFL, especially now that I’ve written this account. Whether it’s my age, my minimum veteran salary, my habit of speaking my mind, or (most likely) a combination of all three, my time as a football player is done. Punters are always replaceable, at least in the minds of those in charge, and I realize that in advocating noisily for social change I only made it easier for them to justify not having me around.” Kluwe concludes this stoic lament by quoting Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”: “So it goes.”
Kluwe deserves to be celebrated for risking and losing his job for what he knows to be right. And what’s right, to him, is expansive. It includes the whole notion of a corporatized football league. In an October interview in UCLA Magazine with writer Dan Gordon, Kluwe describes professional sports as “bread and circuses.” Acknowledging his participation in the scheme, he said, “The problem is you can’t value entertainment more than education. You can’t value entertainment more than science, which is what we’re doing right now. We’re spending maybe a fraction of a percent of what we spend on our military on our education system. We’re laying off teachers and closing schools, and we’re building prisons. That’s bad.”
By varying degrees, pathological machoness has been oozing from the pores of American society since before European settlers excused and condoned their unmitigated consumption of the continent with the notion of “Manifest Destiny.” The same arrogance still runs through the veins of the nation’s most powerful institutions. That Kluwe appears to have been punished for sticking his neck out for scapegoated people is a national shame. For playing the role of public citizen at the cost of his livelihood, we honor Chris Kluwe as our Truthdigger of the Week.
Joe Bielawa (CC BY 2.0)