Chris Kluwe's release by Vikings sends message that gay-marriage talk is not tolerable in NFL
The great threat to the fabric of football did not brandish an arsenal of guns when I met Chris Kluwe in his living room in the fall of 2011. He didn't swill whiskey as we drove to his band's practice. Nor did he store PEDs in his refrigerator, instead opting for piles of fruit and a carton of milk. His television was off as it often is because – gasp – Kluwe likes to read.
All of which makes the Minnesota Vikings' release of Kluwe on Monday more perplexing. For eight years, Kluwe was the team's punter. In fact he had been a very effective punter, deadening his kicks as if his leg was a 9-iron. He was a sure-handed holder on field goals and extra points, invisible in the way you want your holder to be. And given the trouble teams have in finding gifted punters and dependable holders, it seemed he would remain the Vikings' punter for a long, long time.
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But the NFL doesn't always respect reliable players who are role models off the field. Not when those players are smart and have opinions and dare to speak those opinions on places like the Internet. In the past year, Kluwe's activism has gone from complaints about labor issues to the third rail to sports executives: gay rights. Suddenly the skilled punter who tees the ball perfectly for his field goal kickers is the great threat to the fabric of football.
Of course the Vikings, who drafted a punter in last month's NFL draft, didn't tell him this as they cut him Monday. Instead they gave the usual speech about wanting to go a different direction, thanking him for his service. Then he was dispatched from the Vikings' facility without even a helmet clock to show for his eight years with the team.
Kluwe never asked if it was his activism that cost him his job. The Vikings never offered the thought even as the answer loomed obvious to everyone else. Two football players have spoken loud for gay rights issues in the last several months, specifically gay marriage: Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo. Both have been cut. And while you could argue Ayanbadejo was a financial casualty for a team desperate to get under the salary cap, Kluwe was a modest budget strain to the Vikings; he was scheduled to make $1.45 million in 2013. What happened to him makes little sense. Except it makes lots of sense.
"I don't know if I'll ever know," he said by phone on Monday after his meetings with general manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier. "I'm not in the [organizational] meetings."
There is an idea in football that punters should be seen and not heard. Football coaches are men who were raised as linemen and linebackers and running backs. They come from a world where the punter is an annual story in the local newspaper and not an Internet sensation doing photo shoots for Out Magazine. They despise controversy.
As he pondered his release, Kluwe seemed to understand he is somehow now the great threat to the fabric of football. Yet he also wondered why principles are vices. Aren't you supposed to speak against wrongs? The reaction to the gay-marriage issue always seemed strange to him. Football players aren't sitting in locker rooms worrying who among them might be gay.
"Just as someone isn't going to ask me about what I did with my wife last night I'm not going to ask someone what he did with his husband," Kluwe said.
"When I'm in the locker room and around the team, I'm 100 percent football," he said. "I've always been very fair with my tweets. I never say anything to denigrate the team."
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Still, the Vikings seemed threatened by Kluwe over the past couple of years. Where coaches once praised his ability for "coverable" punts that put opponents in bad field position, they grumbled about him last season. If there was a last straw it was when he went out onto the field wearing a "Post-it" that read "Vote Ray Guy," just days after a Yahoo! Sports story about the former Raiders punter's quest to get in the Hall of Fame.
"Those distractions are getting old for me to be honest," Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer told reporters at the time.
Kluwe said Monday no one from the team complained to him about the Ray Guy sign, just as no coach or executive ever told him to back off his Internet crusades. Basically, he said, they left him alone and let him punt. He gave the Vikings another fine season: dropping 25 percent of his kicks inside the 20-yard line with only two touchbacks and a career-best 39.7 yard net punting average.
But because he is now the great threat to the social fabric of the NFL he was cut.
No sports organization offers more contradictions than the NFL. This is a league that deemed its players' off-field behavior a crisis in 2007, fearing advertisers might flee a sport with rising arrest records, that it created a strict player conduct policy. Yet when confronted with a skilled player coming off his best season who defends gay marriage on Twitter, the ax comes out.
Best to cast Chris Kluwe aside than let him poison a locker room with … well, what exactly?
He knew he was gone when he arrived at the Vikings' facility Monday. He had been attending the team's "voluntary" workouts because doing so is what a good employee does. "I don't want to lose my job," he said, just hours after he had. The realization he was done came on the last day of the draft when a local reporter called him and asked what he thought of the Vikings using a fifth-round pick on punter Jeff Locke.
Now Kluwe leaves a city where he built a life and a career. He leaves behind his band that had become something of a hit in the Minneapolis music scene. He is going to have to find a way to keep the group together in the next city – if he is allowed a next city.
If nothing else there is irony in the band's name, Tripping Icarus. For Icarus was the young man from mythology who tried to leave the Island of Crete with wings made of feather and wax. As he flew he ignored the warnings of his father not to fly too close to the sun. The wax melted, the feathers came of and Icarus fell into the sea.
Much like Icarus, the man who did everything the Minnesota Vikings asked of him was cast into the sea. Apparently he too had flown too close to the sun.
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