Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe believes the franchise released him after the 2012 season because he was an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights who refused to be silent when the team asked him to.
The eight-year punter who has yet to find a team since his release — he was cut by the Oakland Raiders in favor of NFL punting leader Marquette King before the 2013 season — provided a detailed account of his interactions with then-Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier, general manager Rick Spielman, and special teams coach Mike Priefer, whom Kluwe labeled “two cowards and a bigot” in the column. According to Kluwe, Frazier asked him to cease his outspoken advocacy for marriage equality and LGBT rights, while Priefer made homophobic remarks around practices and in meetings (“We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows,” Priefer told Kluwe during one meeting).
“I honestly don’t know if my activism was the reason I got fired,” Kluwe wrote in a Thursday column at Deadspin. “However, I’m pretty confident it was.”
It’s impossible to know whether Kluwe’s advocacy was the primary reason for his release. Kluwe’s age may have factored into the Vikings’ decision — at 32 and eight years into his career, he’s more expensive than the rookie who replaced him — though it’s hard to argue his performance was a cause. Kluwe averaged 45 yards per punt in 2012, above his career average and in the top third of NFL punters. Kluwe’s release could have been, as he noted in his piece, a combination of his age, his salary, and his “habit of speaking my mind.”
On Twitter and elsewhere, a common response to Kluwe’s assertion was that, agree with him or not, his political stance and method of speaking out had made him a distraction. That belief is hardly novel — ESPN’s Kevin Seifert said as much in a 2012 column — but it can feed the idea that speaking out about or for anything automatically makes one a distraction. And in professional sports, there’s nothing worse than a distraction.
Those making that argument aren’t necessarily wrong in their thinking, since Priefer himself called Kluwe a distraction in 2012. And punters, cheap and easy to find as they are, are expendable players that are easy to replace. The problem is that the label has become a meaningless blanket term and that, in Kluwe’s case, there’s no evidence to suggest he was distracting anyone.
In 2010, before the world knew of Chris Kluwe’s stance on marriage equality or Ray Guy’s Hall of Fame merits, he averaged 43 yards per punt. The Vikings finished with six wins and 10 losses, good enough for last place in the NFC North. A year later, they won three games and lost 13 (Kluwe, for his part, averaged 45.7 yards per kick, the second-best number of his career). In 2012, with Kluwe lighting up the internet with marriage equality advocacy, he averaged 45 yards per punt. The Vikings won 10 games, lost six, and made the playoffs. After ridding themselves of distraction numero uno, the Vikes managed five wins, a tie, and another last place finish in 2013.
If anything, the only person Kluwe seemed to be distracting was the coach who thinks America should reduce its nuclear arsenal by blowing up islands full of gay people.
But of course Kluwe wasn’t actually distracting anyone, because the “distraction” label is contrived nonsense, something everyone in sports falls back on to explain something even if it doesn’t actually explain anything. NFL teams are made up of 53 men who are among the most compartmentalized, highly-focused people in the world. They play a game that decimates their bodies and almost certainly their brains. They strap on helmets and run into brick walls without flinching. They play through family tragedy, through pain, through everything. And yet we’re supposed to believe that a guy — and, no offense to Kluwe, a punter! — who spends his spare time playing World of Warcraft and advocating for marriage equality is a “distraction”? That’s ridiculous.
The Vikings have no more obligation to employ Kluwe than they did before he said a word about marriage equality. And we can debate whether he lost his job on his merits as a punter, whether the Vikings have and should have bigots in their organization, what the NFL should do to make itself more open to gay players and their allies, and whether Kluwe’s piece is helpful to the larger fight for equality in the NFL. But stop blaming Kluwe for being a “distraction.” At its best, that label applied to athletes who speak out for anything is merely a convenient tool for getting rid of someone you don’t like, don’t agree with, or don’t want to listen to. At its worst, it feeds the idea that speaking out is worse than being a bigot, a tool for keeping some players silent and others in the closet, lest they earn a similar label and find their own jobs in jeopardy. It reinforces the idea that our athletes should be brainless, opinion-less robots who spout the party line and nothing else. And it has created a world where believing in something makes you a distraction, even when you’re not actually distracting anyone.