The Vikings on Friday suspended special teams coordinator Mike Priefer for three games following a six-month investigation into accusations made by former punter Chris Kluwe that Priefer made anti-gay remarks in a team setting during the 2012 season.
Priefer, who denied the remarks earlier this year, apologized Friday in a statement. He must also attend sensitivity training, and if he does, his suspension could be reduced to two games.
“I owe an apology to many people: the Wilf family, the Minnesota Vikings organization and fans, my family, the LGBT community, Chris Kluwe and anyone else that I offended with my insensitive remark,” Priefer said in the statement. “I regret what has occurred and what I said. I am extremely sorry but I will learn from this situation and will work on educating others to create more tolerance and respect.”
In a 29-page document summarizing the findings of the Vikings’ independent investigation — which was led by former U.S. Department of Justice attorney Chris Madel and former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson — the national law firm Littler Mendelson, hired by the Vikings to assess the report, concluded that Priefer made an anti-gay comment to players, although there was no record of his having made any other such comments.
The showdown between Kluwe and the Vikings is not over, however. Kluwe told the Star Tribune on Friday that because the Vikings did not release the investigation’s full report, he plans to file a discrimination lawsuit against the Vikings early next week seeking damages in excess of $10 million. He echoed his intention on Twitter as well, writing that “next week is open season.”
The investigation also provided details on Kluwe himself being insensitive in team settings. The report notes Kluwe making light of the Penn State football sex-abuse scandal, which Kluwe confirmed Friday on Twitter. He tweeted that he and “over half the team” made Penn State “rape” jokes in front of coaches, for a month or more.
The investigation began after Kluwe’s initial accusation in a January article he wrote on the website Deadspin.com. He said Priefer remarked before a special teams meeting: “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.”
At that time, Priefer issued a statement: “I vehemently deny today’s allegations made by Chris Kluwe. I want to be clear that I do not tolerate discrimination of any type and am respectful of all individuals. I personally have gay family members who I love and support just as I do any family member. The comments today have not only attacked my character and insulted my professionalism, but they have also impacted my family.”
The investigators’ report stated that long snapper Cullen Loeffler, who is still with the Vikings, corroborated Kluwe’s claim. The report also says that after denying to investigators in a first interview that he made anti-gay remarks, Priefer acknowledged in a second interview after learning of Loeffler’s statement that he may have made the comment.
“If [Loeffler] remembers me saying something on the practice field, I am not going to disagree with it,” Priefer said.
Priefer is adamant that the comment was made in jest, which Loeffler confirmed in the report. “It was a joke between three people, three men,” Priefer said.
Joke or no, Vikings owners are not pleased.
“We are very disappointed with some of the findings contained within the report,” Mark and Zygi Wilf said in a statement Friday. “As we have said in the past, we consistently strive to create — and believe we have — a supportive, respectful and accepting environment for our players, coaches and staff, and we strongly disassociate the club from the statement that Coach Priefer made.
“Coach Priefer is a good man, and we know that he deeply regrets the comment. We do not believe that this error in judgment should define him. Accountability, however, is important both on and off the field. In this instance, Coach Priefer fell short of what is expected.”
Littler Mendelson concluded, however, that the firm “did not find any support for the contention that the Vikings lacked institutional controls with respect to its workplace environment as it relates to homophobia” and that Kluwe was not released before the 2013 season because of his high-profile support of same-sex marriage.
The Vikings have maintained that the release of Kluwe — who was scheduled to make nearly $800,000 more than his rookie replacement, Jeff Locke, in 2013 — was due to his performance.
Headed to court?
In a meeting with the Vikings on Thursday, Kluwe’s lawyer, Clayton Halunen, gave the team until Friday to meet their requirements to settle out of court, which included $1 million that Kluwe would donate to charities that support LGBT causes, the release of the full findings of the investigation and a suspension of at least four games for Priefer. The Vikings did not respond to those requests, Halunen said.
“At this point it seems that there’s a culture there that needs to be changed,” Kluwe told the Star Tribune on Friday. “If there was anything in the report, then people need to know that. And, obviously, there is something in the report because the Vikings don’t want to release it. If it cleared the team, they would have it out. They would’ve released it any time and put it out. It’s pretty obvious there’s something in there that they don’t like.”
He said that the Vikings originally wanted to be transparent but that they then waited more than six months without releasing the report.
“And all of a sudden, they decided they don’t want to do that anymore,” Kluwe said.
In a July 8 e-mail Halunen sent Madel, one of the independent investigators, Halunen appeared to suggest that the Kluwe team no longer wanted the entire report released.
“… The more I think about it I believe it would be a mistake for a number of reasons,” Halunen writes in the e-mail, obtained by the Star Tribune from a source close to the investigation. “They [the details] will only provide fodder for the media and pundits to attack the methodology, integrity or content to serve their own agenda. Finally, why should confidences shared by witnesses during the course of the investigation that may be very personal in nature be shared publicly?”
When asked about the e-mail, Halunen said his client wants the 150-page investigation released but not the “thousands of pages” of “backup data” containing interviews and other private matters unrelated to the investigation to protect the confidentially of the other witnesses.
In the 150-page report Halunen and Kluwe want released, Halunen said, there are unflattering remarks made by Kluwe. He said he and Kluwe are not trying to hide from that.
“He said some things that might be offensive to some people, and he completely owns that,” Halunen said. “It’s sort of a different culture. A lot of stuff goes on in the locker room. Sometimes, on occasion, he’s part of that too. … It was jokes. Anyone that would read it would say, ‘Oh, that’s funny.’ Nothing that we’re worried about at all. All innocent stuff.”
Halunen did not see Kluwe’s unflattering remarks about the Penn State scandal as a contradiction. The report says that then-strength and conditioning coach Tom Kanavy, who coached at Penn State, said Kluwe wore pants with the seat cut out claiming to be a “Penn State victim” and to “stay away” while exposing his buttocks.
Kluwe said in his second investigation interview that he didn’t remember the incident at first but that “it’s very possible” it occurred because he likes “to play practical jokes.” Kluwe said that “if people said they saw it, then yeah, I probably did it.”
“They kid around all the time with the stuff they do in the locker room,” Halunen said. “What we’re talking about, we’re talking about management who engaged in such hostile conduct leaving such hateful words. This is a leader. This isn’t kidding around in the locker room. That’s what’s very different.”
Impact on football
The 29-page summary report showed that, at the very least, the Vikings were concerned with Kluwe’s activism and how it might be affecting his play.
Former Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell said that former coach Leslie Frazier, at one point, asked Longwell to try to “get Kluwe to calm down” regarding his advocacy for gay and lesbian issues, according to the report. Longwell added that he and Loeffler told Kluwe to “lower his profile” and “focus on what he’s getting paid to do.”
Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman also acknowledged in the report that Kluwe’s activism and its impact had come up “during the heat of battle” because “we want our total focus on football.” Spielman said Kluwe’s advocacy did not influence his decisionmaking regarding Kluwe’s career.
The report also showed that Kluwe received an important endorsement from owner Zygi Wilf. Kluwe said that he spoke with Wilf before a game against Jacksonville in September 2012 and that Wilf told him, “Chris, I’m proud of what you’ve done. Please feel free to keep speaking out.”
The Vikings said that all team employees, coaches and players have been required to attend annual anti-harassment, diversity and sexual-orientation sensitivity training for several years and that they will “continue to look at and take additional steps to improve these educational programs.”
In addition to suspending Priefer, the Vikings will donate $100,000 to LGBT groups.
“We will continue to hold all team members accountable and take the outlined critical steps to further educate everyone within our organization both individually and collectively,” Mark and Zygi Wilf stated. “We will accept nothing less than creating a franchise that Minnesotans and Vikings fans everywhere can be proud of on and off the field.”
Staff writer Mike Kaszuba contributed to this report.