This week the Minnesota Legislature will likely vote on the gay marriage issue and the Vikings made news by cutting their above-average punter. The interesting thing is that these events are not necessarily unrelated.
As you know, former Viking Chris Kluwe became a vocal proponent of allowing same-sex couples to marry, a fact that occasionally became an irritant with his coaches.
The notion that Kluwe’s support of basic civil rights was news at all underscores the seismic change underway, and it’s a sign of our sports-crazed times that an unusually erudite football punter would signal the tipping point of a social issue.
Last year Kluwe’s public appearances on the gay rights issue were periodically punctuated with poor performances, though his overall net punting average was the best of his career. He’s also 31 and was set to make a boatload of money, and thus became disposable in favor of younger, cheaper help. That’s pro sports. That’s life.
Kluwe is gone, so it might be time to ask whether his legacy (if punters can have a legacy) was his ability to drop the ball inside the 20-yard line or to truly engage in a civic issue important to millions of people.
“Both,” said Dave Zirin, sports editor of the Nation and author of “Game Over; How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down.”
“On a team that has been horribly managed over the years, he was a constant,” said Zirin, a Macalester grad. “The idea that Chris Kluwe is on the slag heap as the Vikings are trying to rebuild is dodgy to say the least. But his legacy as a good citizen is also something on his ledger sheet.”
Zirin says the importance of Kluwe’s support of gay marriage should not be understated. The punter’s initial essay on the topic for Deadspin, which was both funny and profane, puts his expression of his civil rights stand on par with Muhammad Ali’s stance on the Vietnam War, Zirin said.
“The actual poetry, prose and style puts him right up there with any athlete of the 20th century,” Zirin said.
Zirin and I agree that Kluwe wasn’t simply let go because of his politics, but politics likely played a part.
“If there’s political ideology in the Vikings’ office, it’s cheapism,” said Zirin. “It’s not so much that they are being homophobic, but they do sit in rooms with ledger sheets with the pros and cons of each player. Whether it’s Chris Kluwe or Tim Tebow, politics is inevitably a con.”
The Vikings push their players to be active in the community. Players often adopt a charity when they are rookies and engage them with varying amounts of time and energy. Most of the time that means letting them use the player’s name, or agreeing to the occasional photo op. Rare is the pro athlete who commits real time, or heaven forbid money, to the charity or issue.
Kluwe walked the walk. Which is why I’m not surprised the guy plans to publish a book of essays on, of all things, empathy. Has Minnesota had a more genuine pro athlete as community asset since Alan Page?
“Athletes are going to be role models regardless of whether we want them to or not,” said Zirin. In a profession where drug use or domestic abuse is not a career killer, “Chris Kluwe modeled civic activism.”
But can an NFL punter actually change people’s minds on a topic such as gay marriage?
“Yes,” said Zirin. “On this issue, it’s incredibly effective when an athlete speaks out.”
The number one variable of whether they favor same-sex marriage is if they know someone who is gay and can empathize. Someone like Kluwe, who comes from a world that’s more familiar to some people, can influence them.
Kluwe spoke to the issue with a Star Tribune reporter:
“As athletes, we have an opportunity to be role models. And I think we have a platform to do a lot of good in the world by taking advantage of the opportunity to speak out on important societal issues,” he said. “I’d hate to think that would be considered a major distraction on equal footing with all the arrests that go on around the league.”
I’ve noted that a lot of comments on news stories about Kluwe accuse him of looking for attention.
“Why don’t people think an athlete is just seeking attention when they do a commercial for Subway?” Zirin asked. But they do criticize them when they “actually say something about the world we live in.”
Kluwe finishes his Vikings tenure as the leader in career punting average, with 44.4 yards per kick. He also had a franchise-record 198 punts downed inside the 20.
That’s pretty good. In fact, I hope some day he gets into the Vikings “Ring of Honor.”
But not for his punting.