The National Football League has no shortage of attention-seeking, controversy-igniting, loud mouth athletes. Between the proliferation of obnoxious touchdown dances, absurd off-field decisions, and media-aimed conspiracy theories amongst players in the league’s recent years, it seems as though outspokenness and the NFL are now more united than ever before. So why does Minnesota Vikings’ starting punter Chris Kluwe think that his speaking out could cost him his job? Because his activism revolves around a potentially more taboo realm for the NFL: human rights.
With the 155th pick of last week’s fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Minnesota Vikings picked up UCLA’s punter Jeff Locke. The decision, however, didn’t make a great deal of sense statistically: last year the team’s starter, Kluwe, posted a 39.7-yard net average on 72 punts in 2012, his best net average since entering the NFL in 2005; and NFL franchises don’t really add backup punters to their 53 active player roster just to sit on the bench. Yes, Locke offers additional talent in his strong kickoff ability that Kluwe cannot, but Minnesota’s rookie placekicker Blair Walsh forced 53 touchbacks in 86 attempts in the 2012-2013 season — the team’s can’t really looking for any more help in that department. The real reason behind the franchise’s draft decision, it seems, is far more profound.
Last month Kluwe wrote an incredibly moving piece for PolicyMic regarding California’s DOMA and Proposition 8. The article generated over 400 social media shares and is just a single example of the athlete’s ongoing campaign for discussion of open homosexuality in the professional sports context. But it was the sort of “distraction”, unfortunately, that the Minnesota Vikings say they don’t want circulating their locker room.
Vikings Special Teams coach Mike Priefer has been pretty open to the fact that Kluwe’s “distractions” are what jeopardizing his career as a NFL punter. Priefer says he is more concerned with the distractions that cross the threshold from off-field discussion to game time activism, but that might just be a cover-up.
In football, each player is a cog in the machine that is a team, yes. But does marginally (yet poignantly) violating the NFL’s uniform code to promote a cause break that machine? No.
And then in football, when a player takes off his helmet, is he his own person with his own thoughts and feelings and decisions? Yes. So should what he says, if it doesn’t antagonize his team or teammates in any way, plague his career? No.
NBA center Jason Collins wrote in his recent touching coming out celebration to SI that he didn’t want to let his “personal life become a distraction.” I understand where he and Kluwe are coming from — “the name on the front [of the jersey] is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back”, kind of thing — but I don’t think they, nor anyone else, should see their opinions or their stances in the world of human rights discussion as distractions. They should be applauded for melding the worlds of public opinion and sports, not condemned for tainting one with the other.
To release Kluwe because of his openness and his off-field activism would be sick. I can only hope for the sake of the NFL that come preseason camps this summer, Vikings coaches are looking more at who can kick the ball further and more precisely than who can keep himself from promoting non-football related beliefs.