Around 10 a.m. central time, Chris Kluwe, punter for the Minnesota Vikings, returned to his locker room after lifting weights at his team’s training facility. “My phone started exploding,” he says. Sports Illustrated has just posted a story from NBA-center Jason Collins; in the piece, Collins came out as the first openly-gay active player in one the four major U.S. men’s pro sports leagues. Everyone wanted to know what Kluwe, an influential gay-rights advocate in the sports community, thought about the news. “I’m just happy that Jason is able to be who he is,” Kluwe says. “This is his story. It’s not my story.”
Not entirely. In his piece, Collins singled out Kluwe and a fellow NFL player, Brendan Ayanbadejo, for helping create a more tolerant environment for an openly gay athlete. Wrote Collins:
I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted. And yet we still have so much farther to go. Everyone is terrified of the unknown, but most of us don’t want to return to a time when minorities were openly discriminated against. I’m impressed with the straight pro athletes who have spoken up so far — Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbadejo. The more people who speak out, the better, gay or straight.
So Kluwe deserves more than a few kudos. How did an NFL punter become such an influential advocate? Kluwe has always been outspoken, and last year Minnesotans for Equality asked for his support to defeat a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. Kluwe was happy to help out; the amendment was defeated on election day. “My entire life I’ve been raised to treat people how I’d like to be treated,” Kluwe says. “And to me, it’s not right that there’s a section of American citizens that are not treated the same as everyone else.”
To Kluwe, Collins’ example not only sends a societal message, but a practical one for pro athletes. “Jason said it best in his article, where he talks about how he felt like he was trapped, how he was baking in an oven for 33 years,” Kluwe tells TIME in a phone interview, while a mower runs across the Vikings practice field; Kluwe is waiting for his long snapper to finish lifting, so he could take some practice kicks. “If you look at it from just an athletic standpoint, if you’re forced to hide who you are, that means you’re not playing up to your full potential. I mean, who knows how good Jason Collins would have been if he hadn’t had to hide who he was? That’s something that we’ll never be able to answer. But I think that’s something that should be taken into consideration.
“You look at guys who have to deal with anything in their life, whether it’d be death in the family or something like that,” Kluwe says. “You can tell it can effect your game, because it’s something you have to think about.”
Does Kluwe think Collins will be the first of many athletes to take his step? “I honestly don’t know,” Kluwe says. “I hope so. At the same time, I don’t want anyone to feel forced to come out if they don’t want to. It’s ultimately a decision everyone has to make for themselves.” And Kluwe says his advice for any athlete, whether it’d be on the youth or high school or college or NFL level, is the same. “Be comfortable in who you are,” Kluwe says. “And know that while there may be people who won’t support you, there are people like me and Brendan and thousands upon thousands of others who will have your back.”