The news: Chris Kluwe, a former punter in the NFL, claims he lost his job because of his outspoken activism and support for same-sex marriage rights in the United States. In a post featured on Deadspin on January 2, Kluwe says he was “fired by two cowards and a bigot.”
Image: Deadspin, AP
He isn’t, of course, absolutely certain that his activism is what lead to his release from his former team, the Minnesota Vikings. But he’s pretty sure: “I honestly don’t know if my activism was the reason I got fired … However, I’m pretty confident it was."
Kluwe’s essay details the course of events of the 2012 NFL season, during which Kluwe’s publicized support for same-sex marriage earned him multiple conversations with team personnel. It’s three personnel specifically that Kluwe highlights: head coach Leslie Frazier, who was fired earlier this week; general manager Rick Spielman; and special teams coach Mike Priefer. It’s Priefer in particular – the bigot from Kluwe’s headline – that holds the greatest blame for Kluwe’s release in the essay.
So what happened? Just before the start of the 2012 NFL season, Kluwe began expressing public support for same-sex marriage in Minnesota. He did advertisements for pro-gay groups, published an essay on Deadspin defending gay rights, and did two op-eds for PolicyMic. The Vikings legal department told him that as long as he made it clear he was speaking as an individual and not as a representative of the team, he wasn’t doing anything wrong and didn’t have to stop.
But Kluwe writes that certain team personnel began a campaign to get him to stop. Frazier called him into his office multiple times asking him to refrain from vocal support. Spielman told Kluwe to “fly under the radar.” All of this despite team owner Zygi Wilf telling Kluwe to “feel free to keep speaking out.”
Priefer, however, would berate Kluwe. According to Kluwe’s essay, Priefer – Kluwe’s direct “boss” on the team – would “use homophobic language” in front of Kluwe. He would “constantly belittle or demean any idea of acceptance or tolerance.” Kluwe says Priefer told him, more than once, that he would end up “burning in hell with the gays.” Kluwe claims Priefer had never used homophobic language in front of him before, and that it all started when Kluwe began publicly supporting same-sex marriage.
During the off-season following the 2012 regular season, Kluwe was replaced as punter for the Vikings, despite, Kluwe says, consistent performance. He believes his release had much to do with his support for same-sex rights and little to do with his actual play.
Why does this matter? Because, as Kluwe says, it’s unlikely he ever gets a job in the NFL again.
That’s not to say all NFL teams are homophobic. It’s simply the reality that punters are replaceable – even Kluwe acknowledges this – and most teams probably won’t want any distraction that comes with signing Kluwe. Unless a team sees Kluwe as a potential for good publicity, his punting days in the NFL are over.
And let’s remember, we can’t be 100% certain Kluwe’s account is exactly what happened. Priefer issued a denial yesterday in response to the essay, albeit a pretty lame one: the old I know plenty of gay people! defense. But Kluwe’s essay is only one side of the story.
Though if it is 100% true, I’m not surprised in the slightest. The claims Kluwe makes are indeed very easy to believe. They’re indicative of the systemic problem in the NFL today – the worship of masculinity and “strength.” This is the same league, after all, that had a debate over whether a player was “soft” when he took time off for mental health reasons.
The mentality of the NFL is a very fragile thing. It relies on its players and coaches toeing the line, keeping their heads down, and simply doing their jobs like mindless automatons. They’re there to play football, dammit, and there’s no time for this sissy support of a social cause. Kluwe makes headlines because he broke from tradition. The NFL and its players aren’t supposed to bring attention to a controversial issue – even one that directly affects players’ health is kept quiet.
This matters because there are, without a doubt, homosexual players in the NFL right now. But they're afraid to come out, because of things like this. If Kluwe has been blacklisted simply for supporting same-sex rights, what would happen to a player that's gay? Kluwe's story isn't exactly an endorsement for the NFL. It shows there are people in the league that are very much closed-minded. And for gay players in the NFL, that means keeping quiet about their identity, or they might (probably) lose a job.
There is one thing that Kluwe writes that is pretty undeniably true: “I think there are homophobic people in the NFL, in all positions, but that’s true for society as well, and those people eventually get replaced. All we can do is try to expose their behavior when we see it and call them to account for their actions.”
Maybe Kluwe got fired because his coach was a bigot. Maybe the team simply found a cheaper punter. But the fact that Kluwe’s claims are even remotely plausible – and they're quite convincing, actually – show that the NFL has a problem. An American institution that makes billions of dollars a year, in this day and age, shouldn’t be suspect of these sorts of behaviors. But it is. Kluwe’s essay is just another crack in the NFL’s lining.