The slow but well-intentioned efforts the National Football League has been taking, along with other professional sports leagues, to eradicate homophobia from the field and the locker room were shaken up by an op-ed published on Deadspin Thursday in which former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe suggested his release from the team last year was because of his outspoken support of marriage equality.
The Vikings responded with a statement saying that Kluwe's public stances had no bearing on the decision to release him and only his football abilities were involved. Some sports pundits are giving the Vikings the benefit of the doubt, pointing to Kluwe's contract situation and less than stellar performance in the 2012-2013 season. (Throughout the Deadspin article, Kluwe said his punting abilities were in line with his past seasons and did not warrant his dismissal). The cloud of doubt whether Kluwe's political views had anything to do with his dismissal is one of many reasons why speaking out for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender equality and other issues is so tricky for athletes in the first place.
"There is an ever-present awareness that your ability to play the game you love is being determined by people who will always have just cause to fire you if you're not breaking all the records," says Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, which mobilizes straight athletes to speak out in support of the LGBT community.
But the circumstances of his release are only one of the allegations Kluwe makes attracting attention. He places the blame squarely on the Viking's special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, whom he calls a bigot, as well as the team's head coach, Leslie Frazier, and its general manager, Rick Spielman, who he calls cowards for not standing up to Priefer. According to Kluwe, Priefer made a number of homophobic statements to him, particularly after Kluwe began to publicly campaign gay marriage.
Mike Priefer, in one of the meanest voices I can ever recall hearing, said: "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island and then nuke it until it glows."
Notably the Vikings statement doesn't address the accusations Kluwe made against Priefer specifically. Priefer has been considered one of the top candidates to be the next Vikings head coach, after Frazier was fired Monday at the end of the team's 5-10-1 season.
"We take [Kluwe's allegations] very seriously and will thoroughly review this matter," said the Vikings' statement on Kluwe's accusations.
"I think that [Kluwe's story] is just a realization that there is a lot more work to be done -- specifically around the coaching side of things," Taylor says.
Priefer "vehemently" denied Kluwe's allegations in a statement Thursday.
"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," he said.
Some Vikings players also rushed to Priefer's side. Kicker Brian Walsh said in a statement, "The allegations made today are reprehensible and totally not compatible with what Mike Priefer stands for."
Jeff Locke, who replaced Kluwe as punter, defended Priefer on Twitter:
(1/2) In my short time with the Vikings, Coach Priefer has treated me with respect and has helped me develop as a player and person. — Jeff Locke (@jefflocke18) January 2, 2014
(2/2) I have never witnessed any actions or statements by Coach Priefer similar to those described in the recent Deadspin article. — Jeff Locke (@jefflocke18) January 2, 2014
Whether Kluwe's allegations are true or not, they push the issue of intolerance on the football field back to the forefront after what has been a troubling year for the NFL. Kluwe wrote that he didn't think his situation was a problem of "institutionalized homophobia" in the NFL, but a matter of individual homophobic people who need to be replaced. Taylor said the NFL has made great strides in making the league more gay-friendly.
However, the controversy strikes a chord with this fall's scandal surrounding Richard Incognito, the Miami Dolphins player suspended for allegedly leaving threatening messages on fellow Dolphin Jonathon Martin's voicemail that included some racial slurs. Both the Incognito controversy and Kluwe's story spur discussion as to whether the aggressive language and behaviors known to exist in NFL lockerrooms crosses a line.
Additionally, it brings into focus the changing media landscape in which NFL players now operate. As the New Yorker's Ian Crouch put it:
This story is, not incidentally, also about the ways in which modern athletes have, in effect, cut the middlemen out of the storytelling process—using friendly Web sites and social media to speak directly to the public.
"The reality is in the internet age it is far easier to be a whistleblower because as an athlete or any public person, your smart phone is always an arm's length away," Taylor says. "You can get a message or thought or an idea out to your followers."
In addition to the more conventional press hits Kluwe did advocating for gay marriage, he also used Twitter to speak his mind, including some tweets about Pope Benedict XVI's resignation in February that Kluwe said brought him criticism from Spielman. Previously on Deadspin, Kluwe also ruthlessly mocked Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. for criticizing a Baltimore Ravens player's support of gay marriage in an irreverent open letter that included a great deal of profanity.
And then there are players who take to social media or other direct lines to the media to make statements deemed outright homophobic, racist or otherwise problematic. In March, for instance, Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons caused an uproar when he tweeted that it would be a "selfish act" for a gay NFL player to come out of the closet (as was rumored to be on the verge of happening). There were also the homophobic comments San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver made to a comedian before the Super Bowl last year."
We are entering an environment where filtering an athlete is going to be not possible. Those who want to exert a little more control over what athlete says or does are going to have a much harder time as technology continues to develop," Taylor says.
Kluwe's story and the fallout since makes things complicated for Athlete Ally and other groups working to address homophobia in sports. If Kluwe's outspokenness on gay marriage did indeed have some effect on the decision to fire him, it could have a chilling effect on other players who want to speak out as allies of the gay community; it could also prevent gay athletes contemplating coming out to think twice.
(Last year, professional basketball player Jason Collins was the first active male professional player in a major American league to publicly announce his homosexuality.)
"If there is a perception that speaking out will somehow hurt your viability as an athlete, athletes will be less inclined to speak out," Taylor says, adding that the NFL ambassadors his group have since encouraged to speak out on the Kluwe controversy have so far declined.
"The athletic environment is such that it pressures athletes to err on the side of silence."
But Taylor says Kluwe's story is an important one and that "until a problem is named it cannot be solved."
"Until we make people aware of the education and the changes that still need to occur, we're not to get to where we want to go."