Did the Minnesota Vikings punt away a core special teams player because of his outspoken support for same-sex marriage?
That’s what former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe claimed in a long piece for Deadspin, charitably entitled “I Was an NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards and a Bigot.” (If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, columnist A.J. Delgado has written a helpful summary.)
Kluwe acknowledges that he doesn’t know for certain that his views got him released from his football team in May 2013. “This is a true answer. I honestly don't know if my activism was the reason I got fired,” he writes. “However, I'm pretty confident it was.”
In 2012, the former punter was approached by Minnesotans for Marriage Equality to speak out against a state constitutional amendment that would have affirmed marriage as the union between a man and a woman. The Vikings told Kluwe he could do so as long as he made clear he was acting in an individual capacity rather than as a representative of the team.
Kluwe agreed, going on to cut several radio advertisements and appear at a dinner for the pro-gay marriage group. “No one from the Vikings' legal department told me I was doing anything wrong or that I had to stop,” he recalls.
Later that year, Kluwe penned an open letter to a Maryland state legislator who asked the Baltimore Ravens to muzzle a player who spoke out in favor of same-sex marriage. It was published in Deadspin and quickly went viral.
From there, Kluwe paints a picture of himself becoming more outspoken as Vikings coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman grew more uncomfortable with his activism. Frazier supposedly suggested Kluwe stop talking about gay marriage, Spielman wanted him to stop tweeting about the pope.
Those men are, in Kluwe’s telling, the two cowards. Special teams coach Mike Priefer is the headline’s bigot. Kluwe claims that Priefer was critical of his stance, finally saying, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows." Relations between the two deteriorated and Kluwe suggests his coach began to cook the books to make the statistical case for canning him.
(For whatever it is worth, Priefer denies Kluwe’s allegations, saying, “I personally have gay family members who I love and support just as I do any family member.”)
If Kluwe can’t say for certain that the Vikings ousted him for supporting same-sex marriage, it’s even harder for an outsider to make a definitive judgment. But several parts of Kluwe’s colorfully stated case don’t add up.
First, Kluwe admits that team owner Zygi Wilf endorsed his gay marriage advocacy at the time. He quotes Wilf as saying, “Chris, I’m proud of what you’ve done. Please feel free to keep speaking out. I just came from my son’s best friend’s wedding to his partner in New York, and it was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen.” He also reports that Frazier backed down on the issue after learning Wilf’s views.
Second, the coach’s public relations assistant tried to help Kluwe come up with a strategy for communicating his views. They quite reasonably suggested targeting national media outlets, “saying that the message would be more effective if presented properly.” Kluwe stubbornly rejected this advice: “I suspected this was another attempt to keep me from speaking out.”
Nevertheless, when Kluwe asked the team’s media department to allow him to deal with marriage-related media requests directly, he says they complied.
Third, the NFL may be macho but it is ultimately a business dedicated to making money (as Kluwe has been known to remind us). The league can be as politically correct as any other major American institution. It strains credulity it is going to take any risks on behalf of traditional marriage.
Outside of a few explicitly religious and conservative organizations -- and not even all of those – as well as some conservative parts of the country -- which doesn’t include Minnesota, where same-sex marriage is now legal -- all of the cultural pressure is in favor of gay nuptials. (Kluwe is clearly aware of this, a fact we’ll get to later.)
Now, such money-making entities like professional football teams and the NFL are notoriously controversy-averse. That’s one of the reasons Tim Tebow is not on a team (even if you accept the maximalist case against his passing skills, he is clearly better than most backups and nearly all third-string quarterbacks in the league). It’s why A&E suspended Phil Robertson and then subsequently allowed him to return.
The opinionated Kluwe’s diatribes are intended to provoke more than persuade. Consider the way he began his open letter to Maryland legislator Emmett Burns. “I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland's state government,” the punter wrote. “Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.”
Kluwe went on to refer to Burns as a “narcissistic fromunda stain,” “mind-bogglingly stupid,” “mindf—king obscenely hypocritical,” and in possession of a “rapidly addled mind.” The football player suggested Burns “hire an intern… to help with the longer words” in his tirade. “I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life,” Kluwe wrote. “They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster.”
Think Kluwe’s problems might have less to do with the substance of his views than his manner of expressing them?
Consider Kluwe’s deep thoughts on the Catholic Church, profundity the Vikings managed to dissuade him from continuing to share with the rest of us. “It should be noted that my tweets concerned the lack of transparency and endemic institutional corruption of the Catholic Church, which among other things allowed child abuse to flourish,” he writes, assuring us he “had nothing against anyone’s religion.”
Except when he’s taking cheap shots against the church. “Had to go to Mass with the wife,” he tweeted while no longer under the Vikings’ watchful eye. “The priest made a special announcement about how proud he was that the seminaries were such good kneelers.” The man so concerned with priestly child abuse quipped, “I refrained from commenting.”
Brendon Ayanbadejo, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker Kluwe was defending from Burns, first endorsed same-sex marriage in 2009. (That’s back when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still at least nominally opposed.) He played with the Ravens for three more seasons and wasn’t released until the year he turned 37, the same age at which Ray Lewis retired.
Kluwe gets to an alternate explanation for his unemployment near the end of his J’Accuse jeremiad: “the Vikings current punter Jeff Locke had a virtually identical yards-per-punt average at half the cost.” Indeed, Kluwe’s 2012 salary was $1.63 million. Locke’s was $405,000 the following season.
By some measures, Kluwe’s performance had declined. One football site ranked him near the bottom for punters during the last season he played. Another calculated punt percentages and concluded he was “below average, is over the age of thirty, and especially when you consider he was kicking in a dome, is near the bottom of the rankings.”
Kluwe only publicized his argument that he is a victim after he failed to land on another team, despite multiple workouts. He failed to stick with the Oakland Raiders. All 32 teams are rejecting him because of gay marriage? In explaining his motives, Kluwe seems to understand the pressures to conform may be stronger in the other direction.
“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,” Kluwe writes. That suggests he knows which set of social views is career-ending.
Kluwe fancies himself a libertarian rather than a liberal, albeit one who doesn’t care for Ayn Rand. So he might think twice before saying “tolerance for me but not for thee.” If sincere, let’s hope he thinks twice about taking any settlement too.