The Absent NFL Activists

Don't believe a football player lost his job thanks to homophobia? One fact from Chris Kluwe's saga is indisputable: the league is no place for someone to speak his mind

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Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field in Detroit, on September 30, 2012.
Mark Cunningham / Getty Images

Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field in Detroit, on September 30, 2012.

As former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe tells it, the end of his NFL career began with a post he published on Deadspin, and it ended for good Thursday — “I will no longer punt in the NFL, especially now that I’ve written this account” — thanks to one of the same. (Kluwe had spent all of the 2013 regular season out of work; the Vikings cut him in May, and the Raiders released him late in training camp.)

Kluwe’s bosses in Minnesota, he writes, canned him because of his public campaign for LGBT rights. While a Viking, he spoke out against a 2012 Minnesota constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and on Deadspin raunchily eviscerated a Maryland legislator who attacked a pro-gay-marriage Baltimore Raven. (Right, a disclosure: I used to work at Deadspin, and Kluwe’s first post helped generate a healthy traffic bonus that month.) Coaches and team officials responded, while he was on the roster, with secrecy, passive-aggressive threats and antigay comments. And then they drafted a new punter and cut Kluwe, after eight years of good service.

It’s a compelling story, one given extra life by Kluwe’s Redditor-after-half-a-can-of-Monster prose style. Here’s Kluwe’s central claim, in his own words:

It’s my belief, based on everything that happened over the course of 2012, that I was fired by [special teams coordinator] Mike Priefer, a bigot who didn’t agree with the cause I was working for, and two cowards, [coach] Leslie Frazier and [general manager] 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.

That professional football executives will mislead or dodge their players isn’t much of a surprise, no. But that one coach allegedly found himself so offended by Kluwe’s activism that he told a special-teams meeting “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows”? That’s meaningful and damning, especially since the coach in question, Mike Priefer, was reportedly under consideration for the Vikings’ now-vacant head-coaching position. (Wrote Kluwe: “If there’s one thing I hope to achieve from sharing this story, it’s to make sure that Mike Priefer never holds a coaching position again in the NFL, and ideally never coaches at any level.”)

And yet for all the worthwhile dirt in Kluwe’s story, for all the good it may well do should the NFL decide to defeat homophobia within its teams’ ranks, there’s a problem with it, typified by two sentences in the Vikings’ statement earlier this afternoon: “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.”

There’s nothing Kluwe can say, no encounter he can illustrate short of the general manager, head coach, or owner specifically telling him otherwise, to prove the Vikings wrong. Kluwe not only played the position of punter — where players are thought to be awfully fungible even by the NFL’s sky-high standards of fungibility (cf. “next man up“) — but he played it without ever reaching obvious greatness. (His yearly net yards per punt ranks: 17, 22, 10, 18, 21, 14. The man who replaced Kluwe, Jeff Locke, ranked 18 this year.) Kluwe was on the wrong side of 30, too, and due at least the NFL’s hefty veteran minimum salary. He notes all of this in the article to ward off charges — which’ll assuredly come anyway — that he’s grinding an axe after losing a sweet, steady paycheck.

But in the process he raises another question: Can today’s NFL incubate any kind of activist? For LGBT rights, Kluwe was never the best match. He wasn’t a star, and he happened to be straight. Brendon Ayanbadejo and Scott Fujita, two linebackers now out of the league who have also supported LGBT causes, fit the same profile. Really, only the league’s rank-and-file is courageous enough to question the status quo on a number of issues: player safety and gay rights chief among them. But that can make them undesirable employees in the next-man-up league. Kluwe’s head coach and general manager had never told him he was wrong; they asked him only “to be quiet,” and to “please fly under radar.” Just the stars have the clout to talk. But they don’t, likely out of fear that their endorsement prospects will dim. (As Michael Jordan famously put it once, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”) And so little ever changes in the NFL’s sinister swamp, even when outside parties plead their cases with reams of evidence. It all seems futile.

The nice thing, though, about wetlands — filled with muck and all kinds of decaying matter — is that they tend to give more life than one would expect. Before too long, someone will emerge. And he’ll be strong.