Chris Kluwe makes up words.
He made up “sparklepony” after people spewed their coffee reading another made-up word that sounded insulting to roosters. And monsters.
“They just came to me,” said Kluwe of the phrases that led to this straight professional football player riding as grand marshal of the Pride Festival parade next Sunday. He laughed. “It’s a scary place inside my head.”
While no longer a Minnesota Viking, the controversial punter is back for the parade, and to promote his first book of sharp-tongued essays. For all the records he set on the field, he may be missed most by people who barely got to know him.
A recap for those just joining the game:
In September, Kluwe wrote a blistering, dark-of-the-night response to a Maryland politician who had demanded that the Baltimore Ravens stop one of its football players from speaking in favor of same-sex marriage. Kluwe’s missive also was profane, with an especially memorable reference to male genitalia. And monsters.
He posted it on the sports website Deadspin, then went back to bed. By morning, a bazillion thumbs on Twitter had made the screed go viral, which led to a backlash about his vulgarity, which led to a revision.
In place of the crude phrases were expressions such as “lustful frolicking ostrich,” “disappointed lemur face” and the one that led to his book’s title: “Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football and Assorted Absurdities.”
With that version, Kluwe became an unexpectedly hilarious ally in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage. In a way, he also was fighting for himself.
Back to live action:
Next weekend’s activities may be Kluwe’s last visit to Minnesota for a while, despite a standing invitation from Andy Parrish to go fishing together. Yep, the same Andy Parrish who was deputy campaign manager for Minnesota for Marriage, which fought hard to keep marriage solely defined as between a man and a woman.
Parrish and Kluwe got into some feisty Twitter debates, which led to doing a couple of radio shows together. “I’ve gotten to know Chris and, believe it or not, we’ve become friends,” Parrish said.
“He’s a tremendous guy who is very passionate, just on the opposite side of the issue, and how can you not respect a guy who literally put his career on the line?” he said. “He’s earned the right to be grand marshal. I’m glad his side is acknowledging he played a role.”
So Kluwe had an impact?
“Sure, he did,” Parrish said. “I always tell people, anytime you lose by such a small percentage, everything they did was correct. … We never saw the wave they’d built up coming. Chris was more a distraction — ‘Here’s Chris, this shiny object. Focus on him,’ while they kept doing what they were doing.”
It’s the empathy, stupid
Kluwe is back in his native California, where he’s now an Oakland Raider after being cut by the Vikings. He had been a punter here since 2005, but this past year likely was the first time when people who don’t know a punter from an outfielder recognized his name.
For a time, Kluwe seemed to be everywhere — on TV, in magazines, on the radio, on the Capitol steps, on Twitter. Always on Twitter.
Yet the suggestion that he left a legacy here left him laughing disconcertedly.
“I don’t really know that I have a legacy — I mean, that’s something you think of with William the Conqueror — but kind of what I’ve left behind in Minnesota is the idea that you can be something more than what you are on the field.
“This idea of labels is ultimately harmful to us as a society if that’s all you think someone is. You’re missing out on all the things that make them a complex and wonderful person.
“I hope that would kind of be my message, that you can be more than one thing, that you don’t have to be limited by your job.”
In other words, those who thought Kluwe solely was a champion of same-sex marriage missed his larger point of “raising awareness that people aren’t being treated with empathy.”
While most of the debate speaks about equality, Kluwe sticks with empathy.
“The fundamental structure of equality is empathy — the ability to put yourself in someone’s shoes and see if how you are treating them is how you’d like to be treated.”
Like the Golden Rule?
“Yeah,” he said, with a low chuckle. “It’s not any harder than kindergarten.”
One of many voices
Yet when human behavior is at issue, views differ.
A formal statement from Minnesota for Marriage suggested that Kluwe’s crude language signaled that he doesn’t practice what he preaches. Expressing doubts about his impact, the statement concluded: “Kluwe was ultimately a distraction who attracted a lot of media attention and lowered the level of discourse on the issue. Even Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, who helped lead the legislative effort to legalize same-sex marriage, said he tensed up when Kluwe’s original “sparklepony” missive hit the Twittersphere.
“Sometimes rhetoric like that can be harnessed by the other side and mischaracterized. It can change the tone and nature of the campaign that we were trying to achieve,” Dibble said. “But he followed it up with a lot of engagement and some real positive messages.”
Still, he added, “Chris was one of many. I don’t want to oversell the case. His was not the definitive voice that turned the campaign, but he was able to reach people who might have not paid attention, and he did it in a way that was funny and irreverent and smart.”
Kluwe said he fights against labels, whether it’s how some label women (weaker), people of color (lesser), religious faith (controlling) or athletes (dumb).
“Without a doubt, I know some people were caught off-guard by, ‘Here’s a football player who strings sentences together. This is amazing,’ ” he said. “A lot of what you hear about the NFL — it’s the bad stuff that makes the news. The smart guys, they go home to their lives, raise their families. And there are tons of smart guys in locker rooms.”
Parrish said he’s convinced the Vikings cut Kluwe for political reasons. “There’s no doubt in my mind he was cut for what he did for Minnesotans United for All Families,” he said. “Statistically, he was the best punter Minnesota ever had.”
The Vikings maintain that their decision had nothing to do with Kluwe’s off-field activities; they just wanted to take special teams in a different direction. Fans were split, some lauding his political stance, while others believed he was less focused on his job.
Kluwe created a bit of buzz in Oakland when he turned down a White House invitation for a Pride Month event that would have conflicted with practice. Posting a photo of his response to President Obama, Kluwe tweeted: “Lest anyone EVER question my commitment to a team that employs me, I present exhibit A. #focused #SOFOCUSED.”
Football, family, fomenting
The American Civil Liberties Union nominated Kluwe to be the parade’s grand marshal.
“It was a difficult decision this year, because there were so many who worked so hard,” said Dot Belstler, executive director of Pride Twin Cities. “But we felt this was the year that Kluwe obviously made a huge contribution to the cause here. It really came down to his huge public voice. He says what he thinks and had a national stage on which to say it.”
Kluwe said he’s never been shy about speaking up, but grants that when Minnesotans for Marriage Equality asked him to get involved, “that’s where I really started my social media platform to get my message out,” he said. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it to the best of my abilities.”
Kluwe’s Twitter handle is @ChrisWarcraft, which reflects the video gamer side of his life. He loves Twitter’s ability to spread a message, but gets irked when people think that retweeting equals action. “People still have to do something about it. Will they call their congressman? Will they protest?”
He’s watching to see how the U.S. Supreme Court will rule this summer about the legality of Proposition 8, which calls for the state to recognize only marriages between a man and a woman.
“Yeah, I’m hoping that the Supreme Court does the right thing, hoping they won’t punt,” he said, cracking himself up. “If they do pass it down the line and make the state deal with it, I’m going to be out there making my voice heard.” In the meantime, “I’m going out and proving that I can still play football at a very high level, even at the ripe old age of 31.”
Yet he knows that football has a third end zone.
With “Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies,” Kluwe learned that he enjoys writing and intends to do more. (He also provided the voice for the audiobook.) But he also wants to spend more time with his wife and two young daughters.
His Minneapolis rock band, Tripping Icarus, likely will have to go on hiatus. “While I’m playing football, it’s kind of hard after eight months to say to my family, ‘I’m going to go hang out with my friends.’ ”