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What’s missing from coverage of Harrison Butker’s ‘homemaker’ comments

Kansas City Chiefs place kicker Harrison Butker celebrates after hitting a 50-yard field goal against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Kansas City Chiefs place kicker Harrison Butker celebrates after hitting a 50-yard field goal against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the second half of an NFL divisional round playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann) | Reed Hoffmann, Associated Press

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker is catching flak this week for his commencement speech at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

He’s been criticized for many of his comments, but most often for telling the “ladies present” to reflect not just on their academic accomplishments, but also on becoming wives and mothers.

“Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world, but I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world,” he said.

Critics have accused Butker of, among other things, being sexist and wanting to trap women in the kitchen. They’ve noted that he failed to mention his own mother is a successful medical physicist.

“Did I slip and fall into a time machine and travel back to the 1950s?” asked one USA Today columnist, asserting that Butker had said “women belong as homemakers.”

However, Butker didn’t say that. He said that homemaker is “one of the most important titles.” He said his wife, Isabelle, enjoys being one.

Some commentators are misrepresenting the content of Butker’s commencement speech. Nearly all are failing to capture the unique context he was speaking in.

What is Benedictine College?

Importantly, Butker’s remarks did not come on stage at a Chiefs fan event or at an NFL Honors awards show.

They also didn’t come at secular Georgia Tech, where Butker delivered a commencement speech last year.

They came at Benedictine College, a small, Catholic, theologically conservative school.

They were delivered to a group of mostly Catholic students who aren’t necessarily theologically conservative but are broadly aware of conservative Catholic views.

The school is “part of a constellation of conservative Catholic colleges” and “home to more traditional expressions of Catholicism, such as the Latin Mass, all-night prayer vigils and a strict code of conduct,” according to The Associated Press.

How Benedictine students reacted to Butker’s speech

That helps explain why, a day or two before Butker was getting panned on the internet, he was enjoying a standing ovation from Benedictine graduates and their loved ones.

One student told The Associated Press that Butker sounded a lot like her dad.

“I was thinking about my dad, who was also here, and how he’s probably clapping and so happy to see what he would say is a real man (reflecting) family values, good religious upbringing and representation of Christ to people,” ValerieAnne Volpe, who graduated with an art degree, said. “You can just hear that he loves his wife. You can hear that he loves his family.”

Similarly, Elle Wilbers, who will start medical school this fall, told The Associated Press that Butker’s comments on motherhood were par for the course.

Writer Jeremiah Poff, an alum of a different Catholic school, Franciscan University, made the same point in a column for The Washington Examiner.

“The Chiefs kicker did not say that women had to be barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen. All he did was note the fact that many women graduating from Benedictine will choose to be wives and mothers first, and that this vocation should be honored and celebrated,” he wrote. “This is hardly a controversial statement for anyone who knows anything about the life goals of Benedictine students.”

Backlash to Harrison Butker

To be clear, not all Benedictine students — and not all Catholics — were happy about Butker’s comments.

One graduate, Kassidy Neuner, told The Associated Press that the kicker should have made it clear that men can be homemakers, too.

But much of the backlash from within those circles centered on his remarks about other topics, including gay rights, Congress’ antisemitism bill and COVID-19.

A column in America magazine, a Catholic publication, argued that Butker’s speech is problematic because it’s combative.

Catholics are generally encouraged to find points of connection during disagreements, rather than draw deeper battle lines, it said.

“Near the end of his speech, Mr. Butker tells the graduates, ‘Everything I am saying to you is not from a place of wisdom but rather a place of experience.’ But to my ear, his speech sounds less like the result of experience than an all-encompassing ideology. There is no other reason that gender roles, COVID-19 policies, liturgical preferences and abortion should all fall under the same coherent theme of a commencement address. Unless, of course, you wear your views like a team uniform — and everyone who disagrees is an opponent if not an enemy to be defeated,” the columnist wrote.

The range of reactions within Catholic circles is missing from most mainstream media coverage of Butker’s commencement speech, which has centered on the intense backlash from more liberal observers.

The NFL’s reaction to the speech was similarly lacking nuance.

“Harrison Butker gave a speech in his personal capacity,” Jonathan Beane, the NFL’s senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, said in a statement to People. “His views are not those of the NFL as an organization. The NFL is steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger.”