Professional sports is not an institution that values individuality. Fines are meted out for wearing the incorrect shoe color, outspoken players are branded as divas or “me-first guys,” and the team concept trumps all. Nowhere is this line of thinking adhered to more slavishly than the NFL. Chris Kluwe, former punter for the Minnesota Vikings, will likely never play another down in the NFL and it has nothing to do with the distance and accuracy of his punts, and everything to do with the reach of his voice and the power of his words.
Kluwe wrote a piece that was posted this afternoon at the sports blog Deadspin entitled “I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot.” The article details, with what he says are direct quotes from coaches, owners, and unnamed teammates, why he believes that his outspoken support of marriage equality is the reason why he was released by the Minnesota Vikings, and why he thinks he won’t get another shot from any of the other 31 teams in the league.
The article alleges that recently fired head coach Leslie Frazier repeatedly asked him to curb or cease altogether his support of marriage equality in the media. Kluwe also calls out Vikings general manager Rick Spielman for attempting to silence him. Most damning are the allegations aimed at special teams coach Mike Priefer, who Kluwe accuses of using bigoted language in team meetings after the punter began supporting marriage equality, and pegs him as the leading force in pushing him off of the team. Kluwe saw the writing on the wall early, and claims to have written the post in April of 2013, a month before his release from the team, but waited until this season ended to post it as to not be a distraction to his former Vikings teammates.
Standing up publicly for what you believe has always been a dangerous undertaking. Results ranging from assassinations, shunning and excommunication, and, as Kluwe believes is the case with him, loss of employment, are the unfortunate consequences that go along with controversy. Still, if this player’s allegations are true, it says something truly disturbing about the culture of the NFL in 2014.
Freedom of speech is an issue that’s returned to the forefront again recently on the heels of A&E reversing course and allowing the star of its hit reality series Duck Dynasty Phil Robertson to continue filming the show. Robertson was interviewed for a feature in this month’s GQ magazine, and gave several quotes that included anti-gay comments. A&E initially suspended Robertson from the show indefinitely, but following a groundswell of public support, rescinded the suspension after only nine days.
Robertson’s supporters argue that he was speaking for himself as a private citizen about his views on a topic of some national import, and that he should not be punished. Right or wrong, the same argument can be made on Kluwe’s behalf. In fact, while Robertson received significant backlash from his statements, Kluwe was mostly praised for his work on the marriage equality issue, displaying eloquence and level of awareness not often attributed to professional athletes.
It would be a shame if it is true that three close-minded individuals couldn’t respectfully disagree with Kluwe without letting it cloud their evaluation of him as a football player. It would be even more shameful if those same three people were motivated by fear or didn’t have the conviction to stand by their colleague and teammate in the face of relatively minor pushback on an issue on which even some of the most vitriolic and hateful politicians and pundits have evolved.
If character and conviction are so important to NFL coaches, why doesn’t anyone seem to want Chris Kluwe?
Update: The Vikings have released a statement on the story. Read it below in its entirety:
The Minnesota Vikings were made aware of Chris Kluwe’s allegations for the first time today. We take them very seriously and will thoroughly review this matter.
As an organization, the Vikings consistently strive to create a supportive, respectful and accepting environment for all of our players, coaches and front office personnel. We do not tolerate discrimination at any level.
The team has long respected our players’ and associates’ individual rights, and, as Chris specifically stated, Vikings ownership supports and promotes tolerance, including on the subject of marriage equality. Because he was identified with the Vikings, Chris was asked to be respectful while expressing his opinions. Team ownership and management also repeatedly emphasized to Chris that the Vikings would not impinge on his right to express his views.
Any notion that Chris was released from our football team due to his stance on marriage equality is entirely inaccurate and inconsistent with team policy. Chris was released strictly based on his football performance.
We will have further comment at the appropriate time.