January 5, 2014 7:29 AM

The Minnesota Vikings: Great Moments in (a complete lack of moral) Courage

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. (According to the Pioneer Press, he is “the only in-house candidate with a chance” at the head-coaching job.) It’s inexcusable that someone would use his status as a teacher and a role model to proselytize on behalf of his own doctrine of intolerance, and I hope he never gets another opportunity to pass his example along to anyone else. I also hope that Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are the people they truly profess themselves to be.

Chris Kluwe was never a household name as far as NFL players go. Punters (except for maybe Ray Guy) never are. They only take the field when their team’s offense sputters and faces fourth down. More often than not, they’re considered expendable and interchangeable. One punter’s pretty much like the next, and they’re usually one of their team’s lowest-paid players.

Kluwe, despite the anonymity of his position, attracted attention. Initially it was because he was a long-haired, easy-going Californian and World of Warcraft aficionado in strait-laced Minnesota. He didn’t blend into the background like most punters, and he seemed to be one of the few NFL players who appreciated and openly acknowledged just how incredibly fortunate he was to be ridiculously well-paid for kicking an inflated leather spheroid.

Klute wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. An intelligent and inquisitive sort, he could generally be counted on for a good (non-athletespeak) quote. He approached life like a real person, not as so many athletes do as President and CEO of Me, Inc. He was politically aware, socially conscious, and possessed the willingness and ability to speak intelligently on important issues. Most notable was his support for marriage equality…which arguably may have cost him his job and quite possibly any shot at resuming his NFL career.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

That’s where this tale begins. It’s a tale of courage, the lack of same, homophobia, and lack of leadership. Last year, Minnesota voters approved a referendum that legalized same-sex marriage. Chris Kluwe did something rare for a professional athlete: he took a very public stand on an important social issue. An outspoken advocate for marriage equality, Kluwe lent his voice and celebrity to a cause he believed in. What difference his support ultimately made is difficult to say, but Kluwe stuck his neck out…only to have it chopped off by his employer…the same employer that initially gave him the green light.

During the summer of 2012, I was approached by a group called Minnesotans for Marriage Equality, which asked if I would be interested in helping defeat what was known as the Minnesota Gay Marriage Amendment. The proposed amendment would have defined marriage as “only a union of one man and one woman.” (It was voted down, and same-sex marriage is now legal in Minnesota.) I said yes, but that I would have to clear it with the team first. 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. I did several radio advertisements and a dinner appearance for Minnesotans for Marriage Equality. No one from the Vikings’ legal department told me I was doing anything wrong or that I had to stop.

Kluwe was a vocal advocate for marriage equality, going so far as to write a letter to a Maryland legislator Emmett C. Burns, Jr. In it he explained that Burns was wrong to attempt to quash the free-speech rights of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. Burns had publicly chastised Ayanbadejo for having the temerity to speak out in favor of marriage equality, as if athletes should be seen and not hear from.

As time went by, it became clear that the Vikings’ authorization allowing Kluwe to speak publicly as a private citizen was greeted with open arms by the team’s coaching staff.

Near the end of November, several teammates and I were walking into a specialist meeting with Coach Priefer. We were laughing over one of the recent articles I had written supporting same-sex marriage rights, and one of my teammates made a joking remark about me leading the Pride parade. As we sat down in our chairs, Mike Priefer, in one of the meanest voices I can ever recall hearing, said: ‘We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.’ The room grew intensely quiet, and none of the players said a word for the rest of the meeting. The atmosphere was decidedly tense. I had never had an interaction that hostile with any of my teammates on this issue — some didn’t agree with me, but our conversations were always civil and respectful. Afterward, several told me that what Mike Priefer had said was ‘messed up.’”

It turns out that some of the team’s coaching staff were adamantly opposed to the same-sex referendum. Mike Priefer seems to have been the most vocal among them. Head Coach Leslie Frazier was evidently not a fan, nor was General Manager Rick Spielman, even though team owner Zygi Wilf encouraged Kluwe to continue speaking out on behalf of marriage equality.

On Sept. 9, before our game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the owner of the team, Zygi Wilf, came up to me, shook my hand, and told me: “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.”

As time went by, Kluwe began to get signals that his outspokenness wasn’t appreciated. Though he’d received the OK from the Vikings’ legal department and a clear endorsement from team owner Zygi Wilf, the coaching staff and GM began taking actions that led Kluwe to believe his days in Minnesota were numbered.

In terms of his performance, Kluwe had consistently ranked near the top of the NFL’s punters- a small, rotating fraternity of 32. His performance hadn’t dropped off, though the team, by Kluwe’s estimation, was clearly looking to replace him. Was this because of his outspoken support for marriage equality? Was it because of his willingness to speak out on social issues, something professional athletes traditionally avoid? Or did the coaching staff just want someone who’d keep his mouth shut and do as he was told?

There’s no way for Kluwe to prove that his release was directly related to his outspoken support for marriage equality, of course. That’s the most insidious part of this story. The Vikings can, and are, claiming that Kluwe’s release was simply a job performance issue.

Lesson to anyone hoping to make a living as a professional athlete in a team sport: Keep your opinions to yourself. Your employer may well be unwilling to have your back. And that’s the takeaway from this story. Free speech is a myth in the NFL, and players with the intelligence and wherewithal to want to exercise their free speech rights do so at the risk of their livelihood.

On May 6, I had a meeting with Rick Spielman. He told me that the team was releasing me, and he thanked me for the great work I had done for the Vikings, and also said he would tell other teams how professionally and competently I had executed my duties over the years. I then had a meeting with Leslie Frazier, who repeated that I had been “a fantastic player for this organization” and who also told me, “Don’t close any doors behind you—you never know when things will come full circle.” He thanked me for my services as well, and said I was a great football player. Then I was escorted from the premises and was no longer a Viking.

So there you have it. It’s my belief, based on everything that happened over the course of 2012, that I was fired by Mike Priefer, a bigot who didn’t agree with the cause I was working for, and two cowards, Leslie Frazier and 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. (Frazier was fired on Monday, at the conclusion of a 5-10-1 season.) One of the main coaching points I’ve heard throughout my entire life is, “How you respond to difficult situations defines your character,” and I think it’s a good saying. I also think it applies to more than just the players.

Several Vikings, including Kluwe’s replacement, have chosen to go public in support of special teams coach Mike Priefer. The statements have the stilted, scripted quality characteristic of boilerplate written by a PR flack. Whether or not the players’ statements are truly representative of their feelings and/or their support for their coach is difficult to know. Like any organization, the Vikings are loathe to embrace controversy and will do everything possible to actively avoid it. The statement released by the team is certainly indicative of that:

The Minnesota Vikings were made aware of Chris Kluwe’s allegations for the first time today. We take them very seriously and will thoroughly review this matter.

As an organization, the Vikings consistently strive to create a supportive, respectful and accepting environment for all of our players, coaches and front office personnel. We do not tolerate discrimination at any level. The team has long respected our players’ and associates’ individual rights, and, as Chris specifically stated, Vikings ownership supports and promotes tolerance, including on the subject of marriage equality. Because he was identified with the Vikings, Chris was asked to be respectful while expressing his opinions. Team ownership and management also repeatedly emphasized to Chris that the Vikings would not impinge on his right to express his views.

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.

We will have further comment at the appropriate time.

There’s no way of knowing what happened in the team’s meeting and locker rooms. As with any team, what happens in-house invariably stays there. Kluwe could be accused of having an axe to grind, and who could blame him? Getting mixed messages from his employer and then paying the price for speaking publicly on behalf of marriage equality (if that’s in fact what happened) couldn’t have left him with good feelings.

To his credit, Kluwe could have raked the Vikings organization over the coals. That he chose to focus on three individuals- Mike Priefer (who’s denied that he’s a bigot), Leslie Frazier, and Rick Spielman- speaks to a level of maturity few in his situation would exercise. Of course, if he’s to have any shot of resuming his NFL career, erring on the side of diplomacy is a smart move. That doesn’t mean Kluwe’s about to toe the company line, though.

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. (According to the Pioneer Press, he is “the only in-house candidate with a chance” at the head-coaching job.) It’s inexcusable that someone would use his status as a teacher and a role model to proselytize on behalf of his own doctrine of intolerance, and I hope he never gets another opportunity to pass his example along to anyone else. I also hope that Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are the people they truly profess themselves to be.

Knowing that he can still do his job better than most current NFL punters has to grate on him. After getting a once-over from the Oakland Raiders, Kluwe’s been on the outside looking in this season. For a veteran who should be in the prime of his career, Chris Kluwe arguably deserves to be punting for a team. Whether or not another NFL team will touch him remains to be seen. To his credit, Kluwe’s resigned to the reality that his days as an NFL punter are most likely done, and he seems OK with moving on to the next chapter in his life.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

However, it’s clear to me that no matter how much I want to prove I can play, I will no longer punt in the NFL, especially now that I’ve written this account. Whether it’s my age, my minimum veteran salary, my habit of speaking my mind, or (most likely) a combination of all three, my time as a football player is done. Punters are always replaceable, at least in the minds of those in charge, and I realize that in advocating noisily for social change I only made it easier for them to justify not having me around. So it goes.

Some will ask if the NFL has a problem with institutionalized homophobia. I don’t think it does. I think there are homophobic people in the NFL, in all positions, but that’s true for society as well, and those people eventually get replaced. All we can do is try to expose their behavior when we see it and call them to account for their actions.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. Never be afraid to do what’s right. If no one ever says anything, nothing ever changes.

Some may ask why anyone should care about an NFL punter, an occupation normally as anonymous, short-lived, and insecure as an untrained bomb technician. I’d argue that this story is much bigger than just Chris Kluwe, whom I have nothing but admiration for. He decided that he wanted to make a difference, to participate and speak out in support of a cause he believes in. In the end, he probably lost his job for his refusal to shut up and just punt a football.

The saddest part of this story is that Kluwe is by all indications a decent, tolerant, fair-minded individual who stood up for those qualities. That he appears to have paid a price for lending his voice to supporting marriage equality is an indictment of the Minnesota Vikings organization (Full disclosure: I’ve been a Vikings fan since I was old enough to know who Fran Tarkenton was).

At the very least, Kluwe’s fate is indicative of a dysfunctional organizational culture. That dysfunction can and should be laid directly at the feet of team owner Zygi Wolf. He may have given Kluwe his approval to speak out on behalf of marriage equality, but the coaching staff clearly didn’t get the memo. If Wolf had made it clear that he, and by extension the Vikings organization, supported marriage equality, that should have been the end of it. Instead, it appears Wolf maintained his distance from the team’s day to day functions, which helped to create an atmosphere of institutionalized homophobia. At the very least, Wolf’s guilty of failing to exercise the leadership necessary to ensure the team publicly reflected one consistent viewpoint. If he supported Chris Kluwe’s efforts to support marriage equality, all he needed to do was to make that clear to the entire Vikings organization. That’s what leaders do. Wolf failed to provide that leadership and direction, and now the team looks an organization with a homophobia problem.

Kluwe’s right when he says, “If no one ever says anything, nothing ever changes.” Unfortunately, sometimes those with the courage to stand up for what’s right are the ones who suffer the consequences. I’ve loved the Vikings my entire life, but if this story is true, it’s going to make me seriously reconsider my support. How can anyone who claims to stand for fairness and equality support a team that seems to stand for the opposite?

At the very least, I hope Mike Priefer will never again hold a position- coaching or otherwise- in which he exercises influences over young people. He’s free to hold to his unfettered bigotry and homophobia, of course, but that doesn’t mean he should be allowed to be in a position where he can pass his ignorance and prejudice along to those he holds sway over.

I hope that Chris Kluwe will be given the opportunity to punt for an NFL team. His talent, intelligence, and conviction would be an asset to any organization. That the Vikings released him and went out of their way to tarnish his reputation and integrity is indicative of an organization with some very serious problems. The good news is that Leslie Frazier and his staff were fired at the end of the season. A 5-10-1 record will do that. Perhaps this story will cause them to take a hard look in the mirror and decide if they’re the men they want and/or need to be. Not that I’m going to be holding my breath on that count….

In the meantime, I find myself seriously rethinking my lifelong support of the Vikings- something I never imagined I’d ever have cause to do.

The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.

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This page contains a single entry by Jack Cluth published on January 5, 2014 7:29 AM.

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