Chris Kluwe, the National Football League punter who has been an outspoken advocate for LGBT equality both inside and outside sports, announced Thursday that he will sign a one-year contract with the Oakland Raiders. Kluwe played the previous eight seasons for the Minnesota Vikings before being cut earlier this month after the Vikings selected a punter in the 5th round of April’s NFL Draft.
Kluwe, incidentally, is moving from one state that just passed marriage equality (Minnesota) to one where same-sex marriage is still illegal (California), and he told fellow LGBT ally Brendon Ayanbadejo that he will remain an advocate for LGBT rights when he joins the Raiders, Ayanbadejo wrote on FOXSports.com:
Kluwe is known for his mind and mouth, as well as his leg. He is a vocal advocate of equality in sports (and life), and says he will continue to speak for what he believes.
“I’m still going to be myself socially and continue to tweet and interact with my fans,” Kluwe said.
Kluwe and Ayanbadejo were both released by their teams this spring, immediately fueling speculation around the sports world that their advocacy had been a factor in the teams’ decisions. Even Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) weighed in when Kluwe was cut, saying, “Yeah, I don’t feel good about it,” an implication that Kluwe’s outspokenness played a role in his release. Others raised similar questions when the Baltimore Ravens released Ayanbadejo.
Though Ayanbadejo remains unsigned, Kluwe’s new contract should put those concerns to rest. The reality is that the release of both players looked more like business decisions — Kluwe was due $1.45 million in 2013, nearly $1 million more than the Vikings will pay his rookie replacement. Ayanbadejo, meanwhile, was an aging 36-year-old linebacker who primarily played special teams, and considering that the Ravens handed out a record contract to quarterback Joe Flacco, his $940,000 salary at an easy-to-replace position made him expendable (he was hardly the only prominent Raven to fall victim to cost-cutting this offseason).
And as as Cyd Zeigler argued at OutSports when the Vikings cut Kluwe, immediate speculation without evidence that advocacy played a role in their releases can be counterproductive to the cause they are pushing, Ayanbadejo, Kluwe, and other players have fought to make the NFL a more open and inclusive place both for advocates of LGBT rights and for gay players. But painting football as a place where those voices still aren’t welcome, where speaking out carries the penalty of losing one’s job, only encourages allies to remain quiet and gay players to stay in the closet. And it ignores the progress the league as made. Despite hiccups along the way, the NFL has indeed become a more open place: not only are Kluwe and Ayanbadejo speaking out, but so are both NFL Players Association president Dominque Foxworth and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and the league has strengthened its efforts to rid the game of discrimination and homophobia.
If evidence existed that Kluwe and Ayanbadejo’s advocacy played a role in either situation, it should be publicized, shamed, and subject to the league’s non-discrimination policy. It’s far more likely, though, that Kluwe and Ayanbadejo were cut because football, as Zeigler explained, “is a numbers game.” Making legitimate business decisions doesn’t make a football team discriminatory, and treating legitimate business decisions as discriminatory only ensures that football will remain in the shadows of tolerance for far longer than it should.