Veteran Vikings punter Chris Kluwe made headlines in 2012 with his colorful (and not safe for work) indictment of a Maryland State Government official who opposed marriage equality. Published on Deadspin, the piece rapidly catapulted the punter to fame outside the sports world, making him an instant hero and illustrating that progressivism is alive and well in sports as it is everywhere else. Only a few months later, he was released from the Vikings. He claims it was because of homophobia on the part of management; they claim it was because of poor performance.
Which is it?
Fired for Gay Rights Activism?
Kluwe’s account of the situation begins almost immediately after he published his open letter and became more vocal in his gay rights activism. As a straight athlete working in solidarity with the gay community, he wrote letters, appeared at events, participated in interviews and engaged in a variety of other activities — all, he says, with the approval of the team: “After talking to the Vikings legal department, I was given the go-ahead to speak on the issue as long as I made it clear I was acting as a private citizen, not as a spokesman for the Vikings, which I felt was fair and complied with.”
At the same time, he says, he faced an increasingly hostile work environment. Coach Mike Priefer, according to Kluwe’s claims, regularly used homophobic language in the locker room, in a manner calculated to cause discomfort. The coach described Kluwe’s activism as a “distraction” in the media. Meanwhile, Leslie Frazier (later released as well for poor performance) was telling Kluwe not to be so outspoken on matters like the Catholic Church, and General Manager Rick Spielman was curiously silent — except when it came to firing him.
In the meeting that led to his firing, Kluwe was informed that his stats for the last season had been sub-par, something he admits was certainly true, but claims was the result of how he was coached. He began to wonder if his sinking feeling about discrimination in the workplace was true — could he have been released as a result of homophobia, rather than simple performance issues? Kluwe held his cards close to his chest until the close of the season, at which point he came out with the letter, hoping to spark a conversation about the issue without doing so when his former team members were still trying to focus on competing.
The Team Responds
His description of events calls Priefer a “bigot” and notes that Kluwe would like to assure that he never coaches in the NFL again, while Kluwe refers to Frazier and Spielman as “cowards.” The description is sharp and strongly worded, and it forced the Vikings to respond quickly with a temporary statement while they determined how to proceed. They claim that: “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.”
Priefer, meanwhile, responded that: “I want to be clear that I do not tolerate discrimination of any type and am respectful of all individuals. I personally have gay family members who I love and support just as I do any family member.” He was joined by several team members who spoke in his support on various social media networks, including team members who claimed that they had experienced a supportive and friendly work environment, in marked contrast to Kluwe’s claims.
Activist and Athlete
Writing about the issue for the New Yorker, Ian Crouch notes that the attitude towards social activism in the NFL and professional sports in general has shifted, and as Kluwe himself points out, the ability to talk openly about gay rights is a testimony to how much has changed. But that attitude may not have changed as much as it needs to, as Fox columnist Kevin Lincoln says in his supportive discussion of Kluwe’s case.
Throughout the dispute, Kluwe has attempted to stress where the issue lies. “For 8 of the 8 years I was there, the vast majority of the people in the Vikings organization treated me with respect, treated me with dignity, treated me like a human being. It’s unfortunate that this has to paint the organization in a bad light, when it really is just me, Priefer, Frazier, and Spielman. Like I said, I wish it hadn’t had to come to this. But it did,” he said in an interview with the Minneapolis City Pages.
The Vikings are responding to the growing situation with a detailed independent review that will hopefully provide more information about exactly what happened and how to proceed. Whether Kluwe was fired for performance, activism, or some combination of the two, one thing is probably certain: he’ll likely never play in the NFL again, thanks to his outspoken stance.
Photo credit: Freedom to Marry.