This week, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe wrote a scathing article for Deadspin, saying that he believes he lost his job as a result of his very public support of gay rights.
Is Kluwe the second high profile person to learn in recent weeks that the first amendment gives us the right to say what we feel, but it doesn't make us immune to the consequences?
I don't think so.
Kluwe, who is on the opposite end of the spectrum as Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson on this issue but is also known for speaking his mind, is accusing his former position coach, Mike Priefer, of being a "bigot" and holding his public support of marriage equality against him – even berating him in front of teammates. He also accuses his former head coach, Leslie Frazier, who was fired as Minnesota Vikings head coach Monday, and general manager of being “cowards” and trying to “keep him quiet.” There’s too much detail to cover, so please read Kluwe’s account of what happened here: I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot
Kluwe was replaced as the Vikings punter before the 2013 season. His account of the 2012 season and offseason certainly shows that not everyone in the Vikings organization supported his public fight for marriage equality and gay rights.
But I don't think that was the reason he was released.
For those who don't follow football and simply read Kluwe's article, it certainly sounds like he was released because his coaches didn't "appreciate" his public support of gay rights. But what the former punter left out of the article is the quantifiable reason he was released - the numbers.
I read Kluwe's article and was sympathetic, and I appreciate his support of a topic he believes so strongly in. If Priefer did make the comments Kluwe claims, he should be punished, just as the Miami Dolphins did to Richie Incognito was for bullying a teammate and using the “n” word. The alleged comments made by his former position coach are hateful and the reason that no gay NFL player – and we all know they exist – has felt comfortable enough to be "out." While everyone is entitled to their beliefs, there is no room for hatred.
Of course, we've only heard one side of the story, and we can’t just take Kluwe's word as gospel. Priefer has responded, and his response deserves to be heard. In a statement released Thursday evening that he "vehemently denies" Kluwe's allegations, that he "does not tolerate discrimination of any type" and that he is "respectful of all individuals." Some of the current Vikings have also stated publicly that they've never heard Priefer use racist or homophobic language. Take that as you will.
Now for those numbers, the real reason I don't think the Vikings released Kluwe based on his support of gay rights: Kluwe averaged 45 yards per punt in 2012, ranking 22nd in the league. The Viking's 2013 punter, Jeff Locke, posted an average of 44.2 yards per punt this past season, ranking 24th in the league. However, being a rookie, Locke cost the Vikings $405,000 this year, whereas the Vikings would have had to pay Kluwe $1.45 million in 2013. Strictly by these numbers, releasing the veteran in favor of a rookie with the same output at 1/3 the price is a no-brainer.
In addition to the average-at-best play, I think Leslie Frazier did see Kluwe as a distraction; coaches tend to prefer players who keep a low profile and make football their primary “cause.” From his own account, Kluwe went against his boss’s wishes, no matter how just the cause, even refusing to take advice from the PR department. On a football team, someone who is a distraction and has only average performance is expendable.
Kluwe's points about the team telling him to keep quiet about his support of gay marriage, or to only show his support in certain ways, certainly show they were clearly uncomfortable with his "well-earned reputation for speaking his mind." Was it bigotry, as Kluwe accuses Priefer, or management wanting to avoid controversy at all costs? Was either the reason he was released?
Kluwe also wrote that team owner Zygi Wilf, the man who signs the checks, supported his beliefs on said subject. That fact definitely puts a large crack in the foundation of Kluwe's argument that he was released solely based on his outspoken support of gay rights.
So we’re brought back to the $1 million question: Was Kluwe cut because because of his outspokenness on the subject of gay rights? Or was he released because the Vikings were unhappy with his merely average output and lofty salary?
I think Kluwe was an aging veteran with a high salary and below-average performance; that partnered with the fact that the coaches were unhappy with the distraction they felt he brought to the team made it an easy decision. From a financial standpoint, cutting a 31-year-old veteran punter in favor of a rookie who could play for the team for many more seasons for less than 1/3 the salary is, frankly, a smart business decision. So even if he was the outspoken person that he is, I still think Kluwe would have been released. And that is the bottom line. Football is a business, and Jeff Locke was the better option.
All this said, I support Kluwe's public support of gay rights and marriage equality. But that wasn't the reason he was released from the Vikings.