The Consequences of Activism in Athletics

Chris Kluwe, former Minnesota Vikings punter

Chris Kluwe, former Minnesota Vikings punter

From 2005-2012, Chris Kluwe played football with the Minnesota Vikings as a punter. Kluwe holds a number of team punt records for the Vikings, and at one point was one of the ten highest paid punters in the NFL. During his time with the Vikings, Kluwe was an outspoken supporter and activist for LGBT rights, which in his opinion, is the reason he was fired.

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Chris Kluwe, former Minnesota Vikings punter

In 2013, Kluwe penned a piece for CNN that summarizes the type of activism he displayed during his time with the Vikings. In the piece, Kluwe discusses the prospects of an openly gay player in the NFL, and had choice words for players who said they’d be worried about it. Kluwe said, “Those of you worried about a gay teammate checking out your ass in the shower, or hitting on you in the steam room, or bringing too much attention to the team — I have four simple words for you. Grow the fuck up.” Homophobia thrives and festers in the sport of football, which is why activist voices like Kluwe’s make such an impact. While Kluwe wasn’t the only outspoken supporter of LGBT rights in the football community during his time with the Vikings, he was one of few, and as such, his actions were intensely scrutinized. He made headlines when he spoke his mind, which was highly disapproved of by the Vikings administration.

Chris Kluwe on The Ellen DeGeneres Show:

While Kluwe isn’t certain if his activism is the reason he was fired, he’s pretty confident it was. Kluwe recalls that “Throughout the months of September, October, and November, Minnesota Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer would use homophobic language in my presence… He would ask me if I had written any letters defending “the gays” recently and denounce as disgusting the idea that two men would kiss, and he would constantly belittle or demean any idea of acceptance or tolerance… Mike Priefer also said on multiple occasions that I would wind up burning in hell with the gays, and that the only truth was Jesus Christ and the Bible.” Kluwe was a key member of the Viking’s community and had an impressive career. Yet, despite this, the mere fact that he actively supported and advocated for LGBT rights put him on the outs with the Vikings administration and forced him to work in a hostile working environment with people he refers to as “bigots and cowards.”

In Where are the Jocks for Justice, Candaele and Drier discuss how activism hasn’t infiltrated the locker rooms in modern times the way it did in the past. They discuss how athletes have much more at stake economically today then athletes did in the past. If an athlete lends their voice to a controversial movement, they risk the possibility of losing endorsements because “companies don’t want to be associated with controversy.” The situation with Kluwe goes one step farther in the fact that he believes he was fired because the Vikings association itself didn’t want to be associated with controversy. It’s not just endorsements that players have to fear when it comes to activism, it’s their position on their team. It’s their relationship with the people who sign their paychecks and decide who’s going to play and when. If they voice their opinion, and it conflicts with the opinions of their bosses, they risk losing their position or taking a spot on the bench. In the case of Chris Kluwe, it resulted in him losing his job.

Depiction of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their hands in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics

Depiction of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their hands in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics

When John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their black glove ridden hands at the 1968 Olympics in the style of the Black Power salute, it hurt their professional careers immensely. They were booed and forced out of the Olympic games, and were largely ostracized by the media and the American public. Between Kluwe’s firing and the awful treatment of Carlos and Smith, it’s no reason why more athletes don’t participate in activism. The consequences are extremely high, and when one’s trying to earn a living, it’s a risky situation to put yourself in. Kluwe’s firing is only going to act as a deterrent for any possible future athlete activists, because it shows that even 50 years after the Carlos and Smith incident, the consequence is still the same. You can still be fired for voicing an opinion your superiors don’t agree with, and that’s terrifying. The fact that these men were fired and ostracized for being progressive, purely because the people who employed them were not, is a shamefully gross injustice to them and their causes.

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3 comments

  1. brendangaughan · December 7, 2014

    Outstanding piece! I was intrigued with your approach to present the problem of how athletes are vulnerable if their beliefs are not shared with their bosses. Instead of blaming the coaches or administration for their incompetence and close-mindedness, you stay more towards the side in defending the athletes and their freedom of speech. I definitely agree with you that athletes who speak out and are involved in controversial topics, in this case the LGBT rights, their risk of losing their jobs becomes statistically more probable. This is not only unfair to the players themselves, but to their families as well. Yes, it is likely an administration will eventually not agree with a professional athlete’s opinions, but it isn’t the administration’s right to make the athlete suffer because they were fighting for what they believe in. It is the athletes’ right, just like every other American, to speak openly and fight for whatever they choose. Where I don’t completely agree with you is where this problem is just as prevalent as it was 50 years ago. In my opinion, professional athletes are gradually becoming more comfortable speaking their mind and defending their beliefs. Whether it is regarding the Michael Brown Case, Trevon Martin Case, or the coming-out of Michael Sam, athletes are beginning to voice their opinion more often with less back-lash because they are executing the rights they deserve to have. There will always be controversy between administration and their players because there is not always a happy-medium that both will accept. Therefore, the problem will never go away. I do believe, however, that the vulnerability of professional athletes after voicing their opinions will significantly decrease in future years.

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  2. hsharf · December 8, 2014

    I think the case of Chris Kluwe is a perfect example as to that as a society we still have a lot of room to grow. Even though minorities have gained many rights, there is still obviously discrimination in America. The fact that an employee of an organization was fired for supporting a minority group is crazy. Kluwe more than adequeteley did his job, so his views on LGBT should have been irrelevant. Nonetheless, this was not the case; just for associating with a group that the organization viewed as “controversial”, he lost his job. This shows that there is still a lot of room to grow as Americans.

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  3. aricerq · December 9, 2014

    Honestly, I had never heard of Chris Kluwe or his letter, but I am so happy that I read your blog post and now know about the brave and courageous stance he took in support of marriage equality. That’s also why it saddens me so much that he was fired for voicing his views that he is 100% entitled to having, shame on The Vikings for getting rid of a great player with a kind heart simply because they didn’t want this stain on their reputation. Any football player, or athlete for that matter, should be able to voice their opinion on the matter. And this causes me to ask the question: why can I man who beats his wife or children, or even a man that was accused of (and most likely did commit) murder be able to play while someone who wrote an op-ed about something they are passionate about not be able to? The system is incredibly skewed.

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