Thursday, January 2, 2014
Most important of Chris Kluwe's allegations
By Kevin Seifert
There is much to unfold among the roughly 3,880 words former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe published Thursday at Deadspin.com, and I think it's important to separate some of the unrelated issues contained therein.
From the top, Kluwe was not released in April 2013 solely because he advocated for gay rights, no matter the portrait he painted in the piece. A more objective explanation, as we discussed at the time, would note that he was a 31-year-old veteran who had produced a below-average performance in 2012 based on the criteria the Vikings most valued. He was entering the final year of his contract, one that carried no salary cap hit if he were released, and was playing for a team that had been systematically replacing older players with younger ones.
If anything, Kluwe's advocacy was the final push off the plank. Fair or otherwise, NFL teams don't have much tolerance for middling performers who draw more attention off the field than on it, be it for social causes or television commercials. Kluwe's stated confidence that his "activism was the reason I got fired" is a convenient storyline, one that has already drawn a great deal of attention, but it isn't supported by the full set of facts.
It's important to dismiss that thread so that we can independently address the real issue here. The story, as I see it, isn't a reassessment of why Kluwe is headed toward retirement. It's that Kluwe quoted a prominent Vikings assistant coach allegedly uttering abhorrent and obviously inappropriate sentiments about gays in a team setting, quotes that remained unreported (and presumably unaddressed by the team) for more than a year.
According to Kluwe, Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer said in a 2012 special-teams meeting: "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows." Priefer had made other comments in a "semi-joking manner," Kluwe wrote, but in this case he spoke "in one of the meanest voices I can ever recall hearing."
(Update: Priefer said in a statement released Thursday evening that he "vehemently denies" Kluwe's allegations, that he "does not tolerate discrimination of any type" and that he is "respectful of all individuals.")
I suppose we can note that Kluwe's advocacy had its limits; he wasn't willing to risk his job (or cause further distraction) by going public with the quotes immediately. But timing shouldn't discredit or lessen the impact of the revelation, assuming it is accurate. If that's the case, Priefer's career in the NFL might be over and his words should spark the same industry shakeup as the Miami Dolphins' hazing debacle from earlier this season.
According to Kluwe, Priefer had never used homophobic language in front of the punter before he began advocating for gay rights in the summer of 2011. So did Priefer resort to it as a way to tease, haze or otherwise send Kluwe a message? I recognize that off-color jabs are a staple in professional sports, but Priefer -- knowingly or otherwise -- crossed an obvious line. If his superiors weren't aware of it, then the Vikings had a serious, organization-wide communication issue at the time.
The Vikings did not mention Priefer in a statement released Thursday afternoon, focusing only on their dealings with Kluwe and concluding that he was released "strictly based on his football performance." They promised "further comment at the appropriate time," and I can only hope that comes after a thorough investigation into Priefer's language and methods.
Words are the most powerful weapon in advocating -- and blocking -- social change. A sentiment expressed once can be forgotten. One expressed repeatedly, for good or bad, becomes ingrained.
The NFL already was likely to establish new workplace rules when the Dolphins investigation is complete. The primary language in question in Miami was the N-word, but anti-gay sentiments -- in jest or otherwise -- should be considered just as seriously. In light of Kluwe's letter, I would imagine that nascent set of rules is about to get thicker.