In terms of football stature, it is difficult to imagine two more different players than former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Green Bay Packers All-World quarterback Aaron Rodgers. In terms of courage in the face of homophobia, it is also difficult to imagine two more different people than Chris Kluwe and Aaron Rodgers.
Kluwe released an article on Deadspin this week called, with his trademark subtlety, "I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot.” He tells the backstory behind his release from the team after spending his off hours during the 2012 NFL season fighting to stop a Minnesota anti-gay marriage referendum.
He quotes Vikings coach Leslie Frazier telling him that he “needed to be quiet, and stop speaking out on this stuff.” Frazier also said, according to Kluwe, “a wise coach once told me there are two things you don’t talk about in the NFL, politics and religion.” We also hear from his special teams coach Mike Priefer, who allegedly told Kluwe he would “wind up burning in hell with the gays” and “we should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.”
Before we get to Mike Priefer, a brief aside to Leslie Frazier. Coach: there is zero empirical evidence that a player’s political interests interfere with team goals. In fact, opposite examples abound. From Bill Russell (eleven titles in thirteen years) to UCLA college star Lew “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” Alcindor (three straight NCAA titles) to Steve Nash and Los Suns rallying around immigrant rights while upsetting the San Antonio Spurs in the playoffs, there are actually far more instances which demonstrate that players who also fight for a better world should be considered valued parts of any team.
Then there is the other part of Frazier’s statement that “politics and religion” are of equal concern in the locker room. This is farcical. Yes, politics are policed. But organizations like the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action, preaching a gospel of evangelical Christianity, are in almost every clubhouse. No one is ever called into the coach’s office for organizing a Bible study. Also, to be clear, it is not “politics” that set a coach’s teeth on edge. It is only a certain kind of politics that are against the clubhouse code: politics of resistance, politics that challenge oppression, politics that get you labeled a “distraction” and a “troublemaker.” Apparently, thinking that LGBT people are human meets these criteria. There is nothing politically “distracting,” assumedly, about a coach voicing his belief that LGBT people should be subject to nuclear genocide.
That brings us to Mike Priefer. The NFL is not a schoolyard, no matter what the Richie Incognito crowd thinks. It is a workplace. If Priefer believes that LGBT people should be nuked then he should by all means gather with fellow thinkers in the Westboro Baptist Church and shout it out at the nearest funeral. The idea that he would feel free to spew this in an NFL workplace speaks volumes. The fact that he can voice such things from a position of authority is a league-wide disgrace.
Kluwe’s article constitutes a brave, even whistleblowing act that could keep him permanently out of the league. He also dropped his story, coincidentally, the same week that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers took to the airwaves to dispel gay rumors most of us didn’t know existed. He said with gusto that he “really, really likes women,” as if they were his favorite cut of beef at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. He did not even throw down with a token “not that there is anything wrong with that.” (Straight men: the only three acceptable answers to “Are you gay?” are, “That’s my business,” “Not at the moment”, or “I fear I don’t have that privilege.”)
Rodgers’s dispiriting 2002 Mike Piazza answer, led some of my sportswriting brethren like Will Leitch, in an otherwise terrific piece at Sports on Earth, to despair that “people keep saying it’s getting better in professional sports. I’m not seeing it.” I disagree with this. The LGBT workplace protections enacted in the NHL and NBA last year are groundbreaking. The upsurge of athletic protest for LGBT rights leading up to the Sochi Olympics is historic. The courage of Britney Griner speaking out against sexual McCarthyism in women’s basketball and the un-retiring of Robbie Rogers are too significant to just brush off. On the other hand, Jason Collins still waits for a team to call. On the other hand, Aaron Rodgers, an intelligent, mature human being, acted like being gay meant having cooties. That’s how progress works, in fits and starts. It’s not always smooth and not always pretty. But by breaking his silence about his release from the Vikings, Chris Kluwe has once again moved the ball forward.