I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot

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January 2, 2014
4:24 p.m.

Story courtesy of Deadspin

Hello. My name is Chris Kluwe, and for eight years I was the punter for the Minnesota Vikings. In May 2013, the Vikings released me from the team. At the time, quite a few people asked me if I thought it was because of my recent activism for same-sex marriage rights, and I was very careful in how I answered the question. My answer, verbatim, was always, “I honestly don’t know, because I’m not in those meetings with the coaches and administrative people.”

This is a true answer. I honestly don’t know if my activism was the reason I got fired.

However, I’m pretty confident it was.

Allow myself to tell you a story about … myself. The following is a record of what happened to me during my 2012 season with the Minnesota Vikings, written down immediately after the 2013 draft in April, when I realized what was happening, and revised recently only for clarity. I tried to keep things as objective as possible, and anything you see in quotes are words that I directly recall being said to me.

This is a story about how actions have consequences, no matter how just or moral you think your cause happens to be, and it’s a story about the price people all too often pay for speaking out.

Today, April 30, 2013, I am writing an account of events that transpired during my time with the Minnesota Vikings during the 2012 NFL season and leading into the 2013 season (so I don’t forget them in case it is necessary to recall what happened).

During the summer of 2012, I was approached by a group called Minnesotans for Marriage Equality, which asked if I would be interested in helping defeat what was known as the Minnesota Gay Marriage Amendment. The proposed amendment would have defined marriage as “only a union of one man and one woman.” (It was voted down, and same-sex marriage is now legal in Minnesota.) I said yes, but that I would have to clear it with the team first. After talking to the Vikings legal department, I was given the go-ahead to speak on the issue as long as I made it clear I was acting as a private citizen, not as a spokesman for the Vikings, which I felt was fair and complied with. I did several radio advertisements and a dinner appearance for Minnesotans for Marriage Equality. No one from the Vikings’ legal department told me I was doing anything wrong or that I had to stop.

On Sept. 7, 2012, this website published a letter I had written to Maryland delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. chastising him for trampling the free-speech rights of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. The letter also detailed why I supported the rights of same-sex couples to get married. It quickly went viral.

On Sept. 8, the head coach of the Vikings, Leslie Frazier, called me into his office after our morning special-teams meeting. I anticipated it would be about the letter (punters aren’t generally called into the principal’s office). Once inside, Coach Frazier immediately told me that I “needed to be quiet, and stop speaking out on this stuff” (referring to my support for same-sex marriage rights). I told Coach Frazier that I felt it was the right thing to do (what with supporting equality and all), and I also told him that one of his main coaching points to us was to be “good men” and to “do the right thing.” He reiterated his fervent desire for me to cease speaking on the subject, stating that “a wise coach once told me there are two things you don’t talk about in the NFL, politics and religion.” I repeated my stance that this was the right thing to do, that equality is not something to be denied anyone, and that I would not promise to cease speaking out. At that point, Coach Frazier told me in a flat voice, “If that’s what you feel you have to do,” and the meeting ended. The atmosphere was tense as I left the room.

On Sept. 9, before our game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the owner of the team, Zygi Wilf, came up to me, shook my hand, and told me: “Chris, I’m proud of what you’ve done. Please feel free to keep speaking out. I just came from my son’s best friend’s wedding to his partner in New York, and it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.”

On Sept. 10, I was once again called into Leslie Frazier’s office. Coach Frazier asked me if I was going to keep speaking out on the matter of same-sex marriage and equality. I responded that I was, and I related what Zygi Wilf had said to me at the game the day before. Coach Frazier looked stunned and put his hand across his face. He then told me: “Well, he writes the checks. It looks like I’ve been overruled.” At that point, he got his personal public relations assistant on a conference call to ask her what to do. She outlined some strategies, mainly centered around talking only with large national media groups and ignoring the smaller market stations (radio, television, print). I said that I would be sure not to say anything to denigrate the team, but that I would like to talk with anyone who was interested. Both Coach Frazier and his PR person attempted to dissuade me from this course of action, saying that the message would be more effective if presented properly. I suspected this was another attempt to keep me from speaking out. I did not agree to any course of action they suggested, and I left the meeting once it concluded.

On or around Sept. 17 (could have possibly been Sept. 19), I approached our head of public relations, Bob Hagan. It had come to my attention via Twitter that multiple news sources were attempting to contact me through the Vikings and had been unable to reach me (I learned this via those same agencies asking me on Twitter if I was available for interviews, to which I responded affirmatively). I told Bob Hagan that from this point on, any media requests he received were to be forwarded immediately to me. I would take care of them. He told me that he was trying to protect me from being overwhelmed. I repeated my request that he forward all media requests to me, as I could handle them. He assented, and later that day I found three media requests in my locker (to which I had already responded via Twitter), two of which were dated from four to six days earlier.

Throughout the months of September, October, and November, Minnesota Vikings special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer would use homophobic language in my presence. He had not done so during minicamps or fall camp that year, nor had he done so during the 2011 season. 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. I tried to laugh these off while also responding with the notion that perhaps they were human beings who deserved to be treated as human beings. 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. He said all this in a semi-joking tone, and I responded in kind, as I felt a yelling match with my coach over human rights would greatly diminish my chances of remaining employed. I felt uncomfortable each time Mike Priefer said these things. After all, he was directly responsible for reviewing my job performance, but I hoped that after the vote concluded in Minnesota his behavior would taper off and eventually stop.

On Oct. 25, I had a poor game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the Vikings brought in several punters for a workout to potentially replace me. I do not believe this was motivated by my speaking out on same-sex equality, though I do not know for sure. During the special-teams meeting the following day, Mike Priefer berated me in an incredibly harsh tone the likes of which I’ve never heard a coach use about my abilities as a punter (and I have been berated before). The room went silent after he finished speaking, in a way that normally does not happen during meetings when someone is being called out. The Vikings kept me on as their punter.

I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot

Near the end of November, several teammates and I were walking into a specialist meeting with Coach Priefer. We were laughing over one of the recent articles I had written supporting same-sex marriage rights, and one of my teammates made a joking remark about me leading the Pride parade. As we sat down in our chairs, 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.” The room grew intensely quiet, and none of the players said a word for the rest of the meeting. The atmosphere was decidedly tense. I had never had an interaction that hostile with any of my teammates on this issue—some didn’t agree with me, but our conversations were always civil and respectful. Afterward, several told me that what Mike Priefer had said was “messed up.”

After this point, Mike Priefer began saying less and less to me, and our interactions were stilted. I grew increasingly concerned that my job would be in jeopardy. I had seen the same pattern of behavior directed at our former placekicker, Ryan Longwell, whom Mike Priefer began to ignore during the 2011 season and who was cut after rookie minicamps in early May 2012.

On Dec. 9, I wore on my jersey a small patch made out of athletic tape on which I’d written, “Vote Ray Guy”—a small protestagainst punter Ray Guy’s exclusion from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At no point in the game did Coach Priefer instruct me to take off the patch, nor did he appear even to notice it. The only person who talked to me about it was Les Pico, our executive director of player development, who told me that the league office would fine me if I didn’t take it off. I told him it was worth it, and we both laughed.

On Dec. 13, during his weekly media session, Mike Priefer was asked about the patch in a joking manner. He responded tersely: “I don’t even want to talk about it. Those distractions are getting old for me, to be honest with you.” When asked if he had talked to me about the distractions, he said: “No. He won’t listen.” At no time during the season had Coach Priefer ever approached me about my actions, nor had he ever made any intimation that I was a distraction to the team. He also said: “To me, it’s getting old. He’s got to focus on punting and holding.” Up to that point I had not dropped a single hold on field goals, and despite a shaky game against Tampa Bay and several substandard punts against other teams, both my net- and gross-punting marks were nearly in line with my career averages, which remain the best in Vikings history. I had also been repeatedly instructed by Mike Priefer to dial back the distance of my kicks to give our coverage team a better chance at getting down the field, a request I did my best to follow despite knowing it would mean sacrificing my own averages and allowing people to fashion an argument against me based on those numbers. His exact words were: “Chris, we need you to kick it higher and shorter, because our coverage team sucks. We need to force fair catches as much as possible.” I complied, as I had always been taught to put the team before myself.

In November and December, I was frequently marked for negative scores by Mike Priefer on our “Production Point” sheet for punts that earlier had been marked positive, despite the numbers being almost exactly the same in terms of hangtime and distance. I do not know if these “Production Point” sheets were ever shown to our general manager or head coach, nor do I know if they were used to evaluate my job performance, though I suspect they were. I often laughed with other players about how the points seemed to be arbitrarily assigned, and we all agreed that there was no way to succeed as far as the “Production Point” charts were concerned. The vast majority of special-teams players already had negative point totals for the year.

After the season concluded in early January 2013, I had my end-of-year meeting with Coach Priefer. It was brief, and he told me that the team would probably be exploring options for competition. Several days later, the team signed T.J. Conley to a futures contract, which I saw as legitimate competition or a backup plan in case my knee surgery did not go well. I had been playing the past five years on a torn meniscus in my left knee, and the discomfort had gotten to the point where surgery was a necessity. Recovery time was anticipated to be two to four weeks, and my surgery was scheduled for Jan. 31. The surgery went smoothly, as did rehab, and I began kicking again in late February. At no point did Mike Priefer, Leslie Frazier, or Vikings general manager Rick Spielman contact me, nor did they ever ask how the surgery had gone, nor did they ever ask how my return to kicking was progressing.

On Feb. 11, I received a message saying, “Please fly under radar please,” from a phone number I would later learn belonged to Rick Spielman. The text message presumably concerned several things I had tweeted that day regarding Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down. Spielman later called me and asked me to stop tweeting about the pope because angry people were ringing up team headquarters in Winter Park, Minn. It should be noted that my tweets concerned the lack of transparency and endemic institutional corruption of the Catholic Church, which among other things allowed child abuse to flourish. I also pointed out how that applied equally to financial and government institutions, and reiterated that I had nothing against anyone’s religion, only against the abuses of power that institutions allow. Nonetheless, I complied with Spielman’s request and did not tweet anything else about the pope that day, or in the future.

In March and early April, I spent three to four days a week kicking at the local sports complex near my house in Huntington Beach, Calif., where I lived with my family during the offseason. I felt that I had returned to my in-season form and was quite pleased with my progress. I was confident that in a fair competition with T.J. Conley I would prevail.

On April 21, I arrived back in Minnesota for the start of Organized Team Activities (OTAs), which commenced the following day. When I arrived at the facility, I went through my normal workouts and then went upstairs to talk to Mike Priefer. He hadn’t contacted me since our year-end meeting in early January. We had a brief talk, and he mentioned that I would only have to attend the punt-special-team meetings. In previous years, I had attended all the special-teams meetings, as was expected of me. At no point was the draft mentioned.

On April 27, I spent an hour at the Metrodome signing autographs for the Vikings draft party, an event for which the team requested my attendance, and then left to record some music with my band. My phone rang, and a local reporter from the Star Tribune asked me, “Chris, what are your thoughts on the Vikings taking a punter in the fifth round of the draft?” At this point I knew for certain the Vikings were replacing me. I hadn’t been informed that drafting a punter was a possibility, and historically punters do not get drafted unless the team figures he’ll be a starter. Multiple pundits questioned the Vikings’ decision to draft a punter in the fifth round, as there were still several positions of need, and several players at those positions still available to be drafted. No one from the team called me on April 27 or 28.

On April 29, my first day back in the facility after the draft, I met with Rick Spielman after Mike Priefer had told me Rick wanted to see me. Rick told me that this was solely about competition and had nothing to do with my views. I do not believe he was telling the truth. I had not been approached about reducing my contract for cap-space purposes, nor was my punting average poor enough to justify spending a fifth-round pick on a punter for competition. (My gross average in 2012 was almost exactly my career average, and I had a career-best net average. Statistically speaking, I am also the best punter in Vikings history, despite seven years of coaches asking me to deliberately sacrifice my own numbers to help the team, a request with which I always complied.) Rick said he would speak with me again after the rookie minicamp from May 3-5. I then spoke with Coach Priefer. He reiterated that this was about competition, which I suspect was also a lie, and then he started talking about me in the past tense, about how professional I had been, and how it had been a pleasure working with me. The meeting concluded several minutes later. I also learned that T.J. Conley had been cut that day.

At no point from the end of the season, on Jan. 9, 2013, to my arrival at OTAs, on April 21, was I contacted by Leslie Frazier or by any of the other coaches. Rick Spielman called me once, as stated earlier, to insist I stop tweeting about the pope.

On May 6, I had a meeting with Rick Spielman. He told me that the team was releasing me, and he thanked me for the great work I had done for the Vikings, and also said he would tell other teams how professionally and competently I had executed my duties over the years. I then had a meeting with Leslie Frazier, who repeated that I had been “a fantastic player for this organization” and who also told me, “Don’t close any doors behind you—you never know when things will come full circle.” He thanked me for my services as well, and said I was a great football player. Then I was escorted from the premises and was no longer a Viking.

So there you have it. It’s my belief, based on everything that happened over the course of 2012, that I was fired by Mike Priefer, a bigot who didn’t agree with the cause I was working for, and two cowards, Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman, both of whom knew I was a good punter and would remain a good punter for the foreseeable future, as my numbers over my eight-year career had shown, but who lacked the fortitude to disagree with Mike Priefer on a touchy subject matter. (Frazier was fired on Monday, at the conclusion of a 5-10-1 season.) One of the main coaching points I’ve heard throughout my entire life is, “How you respond to difficult situations defines your character,” and I think it’s a good saying. I also think it applies to more than just the players.

If there’s one thing I hope to achieve from sharing this story, it’s to make sure that Mike Priefer never holds a coaching position again in the NFL, and ideally never coaches at any level. (According to the Pioneer Press, he is “the only in-house candidate with a chance” at the head-coaching job.) It’s inexcusable that someone would use his status as a teacher and a role model to proselytize on behalf of his own doctrine of intolerance, and I hope he never gets another opportunity to pass his example along to anyone else. I also hope that Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman take a good look in the mirror and ask themselves if they are the people they truly profess themselves to be.

Some will ask why I waited so long to tell this story. It’s a fair question, and I have two answers. The first is that I still have friends on the Vikings, and opening up something like this during the season would not help them focus on their jobs. By doing it now, I hope they don’t have to answer questions about an issue that concerns only four people, and I hope the issue will have died down before next season starts.

The second is that I wanted to prove I still had the physical ability to compete in the NFL. I can still hit the ball 45 yards outside the numbers with good hangtime, and at the tryouts I’ve had this year I’ve gotten praise from the scouts and personnel people on hand, but for whatever reason I cannot find a job. (Side note: My numbers from last year would put me right in the middle of the pack for this year, and I’ve traditionally been in the middle to top third of punters each year).

However, it’s clear to me that no matter how much I want to prove I can play, I will no longer punt in the NFL, especially now that I’ve written this account. Whether it’s my age, my minimum veteran salary, my habit of speaking my mind, or (most likely) a combination of all three, my time as a football player is done. Punters are always replaceable, at least in the minds of those in charge, and I realize that in advocating noisily for social change I only made it easier for them to justify not having me around. So it goes.

Some will ask if the NFL has a problem with institutionalized homophobia. I don’t think it does. I think there are homophobic people in the NFL, in all positions, but that’s true for society as well, and those people eventually get replaced. All we can do is try to expose their behavior when we see it and call them to account for their actions.

Thank you for taking the time to read my story. Never be afraid to do what’s right. If no one ever says anything, nothing ever changes.

—Chris Kluwe, former NFL player


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