Former punter Chris Kluwe wrote Thursday that he strongly suspects he was let go from the Minnesota Vikings—and now finds himself unemployed (and, he argues, unemployable)—due to his strident, vocal advocacy in favor of same-sex marriage. (In a statement released late Thursday, the Vikings flatly denied this, saying they released Kluwe “strictly based on his football performance.”) The bulk of Kluwe’s argument is a detailed narrative of his last season in the National Football League, in 2012. Most memorable is a special-teams coach who is openly homophobic toward Kluwe in response to Kluwe’s activism; at one point, this coach, Mike Priefer, said, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.” Almost as important are a head coach (Leslie Frazier), general manager (Rick Spielman), and team apparatus that seem determined to suppress Kluwe’s speech surrounding this issue.
The NFL—and professional men’s sports—clearly has a homophobia problem. That there has been no openly gay active athlete in one of the Big Four professional men’s sports (arguably excepting Jason Collins) is proof enough of that. If you needed more, check out the recent tizzy over the apparently false rumor that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is gay. If you needed more, check out, well, Kluwe’s narrative.
But I don’t think the NFL’s homophobia problem is the most important takeaway from Kluwe’s post. The NFL—and SportsWorld—is seen precisely, and rightly, as retrograde in a society increasingly tolerant of LGBTQ people. Same-sex marriage is legal in more and more states; indeed, as Kluwe notes, the proximate cause of his initial activism is now moot, Minnesota’s governor having signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage last year. Society’s homophobia problem will probably never go away, but it is headed in the right direction. At some point, professional sports will find either the moral backbone or the financial incentive to follow suit—you can take that, as it were, to the bank.
What struck me most of all about Kluwe’s piece—and, granted, this is partly because I was totally unsurprised to read about despicable homophobia in the NFL—was how accepting everyone was with the principle that his employer was permitted to massively restrict his right to speech. Kluwe is one of the better remunerated workers in the country and is unionized to boot, and yet, he says, his boss (Frazier) told him he “needed to be quiet, and stop speaking out on this stuff.” The Vikings’ head of public relations tried to prevent media requests from getting through to Kluwe. And so on.
Maybe most telling was that at one point Kluwe was warned he would be sanctioned for speaking out—on a totally non-political topic! “On Dec. 9,” he remembers, “I wore on my jersey a small patch made out of athletic tape on which I'd written, ‘Vote Ray Guy’—a small protest against punter Ray Guy’s exclusion from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.” This is a debate that exists entirely on the field: Ray Guy was probably the greatest punter ever, and his exclusion from the Hall of Fame is basically a statement that punters don’t belong there (indeed, there isn’t a primary punter so honored in Canton, Ohio). Yet Kluwe was informed that if he wore his patch, the league would likely fine him. And fine him it did. Bad employee!
The one seeming bright spot in the article is that the most powerful person in the Vikings organization, the owner, Zygi Wilf, gave Kluwe his full support: “Chris,” Wilf told Kluwe (according to Kluwe), “I’m proud of what you’ve done. Please feel free to keep speaking out.” It’s great that Wilf is on the right side of this debate, I guess. But it is frightening that this is what was important. If Wilf were anti-gay marriage, Kluwe would not be allowed to speak out? Maybe Wilf is pro-death penalty, and so no player on his team could speak out against the death penalty. “Well, he writes the checks,” a resigned Frazier admitted to Kluwe, giving up hope of trying to silence his punter. “It looks like I’ve been overruled.” As in too many of our workplaces, in the country’s most prominent workplace you are only as free as ownership wants you to be.