Last week, Emmett C. Burns, Jr., a Democratic state legislator, penned a letter to Steve Biscotti, the owner of the Baltimore Ravens football team, urging him to compel his veteran linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo to stop supporting a Maryland referendum to legalize same-sex marriage.
Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe published a response on the sports blog Deadspin that—to use the sort of phrase Kluwe would—ripped Burns a new one. Kluwe defended Ayanbadejo’s right to free speech—he astutely noted that Burns had, in a bonus appalling gesture, written his letter on official stationery. He also, in crude yet compelling prose, made a passionate case for civil rights: “Gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life,” Kluwe noted. “They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population.” And he added, no doubt in recognition that Burns is a black pastor, “Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?”
Kluwe’s letter worked: Burns stopped his bullying Monday, acknowledging of Ayanbadejo, “He has his First Amendment rights.” Moreoever, Kluwe’s blistering rebuke ginned up a lot of media attention over the fact that professional sports is stunningly behind the times when it comes to gay rights (although most of this attention optimistically pointed to the very small group of athletes who have bucked this trend); tellingly, the New York Times covered the Ayanbadejo flap not after Burns wrote his letter but after Kluwe sent his response. And Kluwe’s letter really may have been, in the words of Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin, “The Greatest Political Statement By Any Athlete Ever.” Because it was so funny, well written, and on-target, and because it did not come from just another preening professional pundit, it made for an extremely satisfying read.
The problem is, Kluwe is sort of another preening professional pundit. Though an honest-to-God NFL veteran (in fact, he is one of the league’s best punters), he isn’t exactly Joe Gridiron. His parents are a chemical engineer and an anesthesiologist, and he scored an 800 on his SAT Verbal. “Kluwe is a bit different from most NFL players,” writes ESPN blogger Kevin Seifert, who covers Kluwe’s division. “Kluwe would fit in perfectly in a group of impossibly smart California mensas who spend half their time working out and (most of) the rest playing video games.” He tweets as @ChrisWorldcraft.
More importantly, the outspokenness that has characterized this latest episode is his schtick; you might even be so cynical as to say it is part of his gig. He is the league’s self-styled conscience, who frequently takes to Twitter to “rant” about liberal football fans’ causes celebres: the danger of playing on a frozen outdoor field (as the Vikings had to when the Metrodome roof collapsed in 2010); the arbitrariness of which vicious hits get fined and which don’t; the horror of the New Orleans Saints’ practice of putting bounties on opposing players; the selfishness of a few stars who tried to secure nice deals for themselves before last year’s player lockout was settled; the lousiness of the replacement refs.
Because of his willingness to say such things—which are all correct (except, maybe, about the replacement refs)—and to say them as a player, he has become something of a media darling, particularly in that segment of the sports media which shares these concerns: all the tweets cited above appeared in hand-wringing news articles about those subjects; he has contributed frequently to Deadspin, including to it and Slate’s joint running conversation on the football season; he has even appeared on Slate’s excellent sports podcast.
Much as he does on the field as the punter, in the media world Kluwe fulfills a not-unimportant but still highly specialized niche in which, uniquely, it is in his interest—in, one presumes, his eventual financial interest—to go against the grain of his sport’s culture. That doesn’t prove or even suggest that his commitment to gay rights is insincere. But amid all the celebration and attention his letter has rightly received has been lost the more important fact that Kluwe is not representative, and that the football, baseball, basketball, and hockey rank-and-file will have to demonstrate a lot more bravery of the off-brand variety before the sports world stops being mainstream America’s hardiest redoubt of homophobia.