On Sides

Chris Kluwe on the NFL, gay rights, and online harassment

On Sides
photo by Tony Nelson

Chris Kluwe's stance on social issues made him a visible figure in the public sphere but possibly cost him his job as a football player. The former Minnesota Vikings punter and current gay rights activist, author, and video-game enthusiast talks to us about his unique station between the worlds of sports and politics.

Austin Chronicle: As someone who has faced his fair share of online harrassment, how do you see technology helping to change the way that fans interact with their favorite athletes to move beyond the standard discourse of "YOUR A IDIOT" and "FUCK U U SUCK"?

Chris Kluwe: I think technology is getting to the point where athletes and fans can really interact in a much more personal setting, and in a way where the fan realizes just what it's like to be a player and the pressures involved. When you can get a first person perspective of just how hard it is to make a leaping catch over the middle of the field after shedding a corner trying to jam you at the line, and then the impact of a safety smashing into your back, I think you'll see a lot less "GODDAMMIT MAKE THE FUCKING CATCH" and more "Damn, he was so close, he almost had it." Fans want their teams to succeed, but they also need to understand that we're all human beings, and stuff you say on the Internet isn't in some make-believe world – they're actual words said to actual people, and those have consequences. Just like players need to be responsible for their actions, fans need to do the same, and hopefully seeing athletes more as people rather than as game figures will help with that.

AC: It was a rough year for the NFL's image with several high-profile cases of alleged domestic abuse. How can the NFL strike the balance between holding players accountable for heinous off-field behavior without becoming draconian and acting outside of the boundaries of employment law?

CK: I think the NFL and the NFLPA [NFL Players Asssociation] have to come together and seriously negotiate a code of conduct that takes into account the fact [that] football players are such highly visible role models, that they have to be held to a higher standard than a regular employee. Unfortunately, the sad fact is that both sides will view that as something that requires a concession from the other side (as is standard in almost all CBA [collective bargaining agreement] discussions), instead of as something that is necessary for the long-term health of the game. As it stands right now, the Commissioner has too much power and not enough oversight, and the players don't take enough responsibility when they do something wrong because they've never had to in the past (especially if they're considered a star athlete), and they know the team will cover for them because the team wants them out on the field. Until both sides value good behavior over making money, the problems will continue.

AC: You're known as much for your activism as you are for your punting, and in particular your work promoting marriage equality. What was it about the gay rights movement in Minnesota that initially drew your attention? Why did you feel the need to take up a stance that you knew would make people in the NFL uneasy?

On Sides

CK: When I was contacted by Minnesotans for Marriage Equality, I knew that helping them was the right thing to do, because enshrining discrimination into a state's constitution isn't just an incredibly shitty thing to do, it's also highly un-American (at least going by our ideals). Gay Americans pay the same taxes, contribute in the same workforce, and serve in the same military as heterosexual Americans, and to deny them the same rights as everyone else goes against what we want this country to stand for. I knew it would make the NFL uneasy, and had a good chance of getting me fired, but if I don't stand up for someone else when I'm in a position to, then how can I expect someone to stand up for me?

AC: It seems to me that the anti-gay marriage argument boils down to either a cherry-picked biblical justification or a defensive stance of "what about the rights of people who don't want gay people to get married?" Do you expect to change those people's minds, or are your efforts more about winning over the centrists?

CK: It's more about winning over the centrists and people who may not understand why this is an issue. It's very hard to recognize when you're the beneficiary of a privilege that's almost at the subconscious level, but once people do recognize it, they understand that it needs to change. One case would be the right to work – in multiple states, you can be fired due to your sexuality (which targets the gay and trans communities). Another case is simply celebrating with your family and loved ones – a lot of people were outraged at Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend during the draft, but how often are we outraged at a player kissing his wife or girlfriend? Once people recognize that a separation in rights exists, most try to rectify the situation.

The hardcore discriminators aren't going to change until they die of old age, so we'll just have to wait a bit for them.

AC: You've been vocal in your criticism of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Was this a common sentiment in the Vikings locker room? What is at the root of your distrust? Any truth to the rumor that an online stream of 30,000 people playing Pokémon could do a better job leading the league?

CK: I think "Twitch Plays NFL" would be some of the best reality television money could buy, but wouldn't do nearly the job the commissioner does. I criticize the commissioner (along with plenty of other players, including many in the Vikings locker room when I was there) because I know that the job he does isn't one that necessarily lines up with the best interests of the players. Something I think a lot of people forget is that the commissioner is there to serve the owners, and above all else, to be the public face on the throne that people can get upset at so they don't focus their ire at the 32 advisers behind the curtain. In the owners' eyes, Roger Goodell is doing a fantastic job – the league continues to make money, and Roger gets the blame for anything bad that happens. In the players' eyes, well, he's essentially a dictator with very few limits to his power, and the NFLPA fights that as best they can, but without overwhelming popular opinion on an issue, there's not a lot they can do.

AC: How much bigger do you think that the NFL can get? Shouldn't we have hit critical mass by now? Is there a colony of NFL sanctioned test-tube babies that come crawling out of a Zubaz womb with a Sunday Ticket subscription?

CK: I think the NFL can get much bigger if it can figure out how to expand overseas, which is what they've been trying to do with London (and before that, Mexico) for the last decade or two. The NFL wants to be like soccer – played and watched around the world, with the resulting massive amounts of cash from fans. However, I think the NFL's barrier to entry is higher than soccer or baseball (needs padded gear as well as a ball as opposed to just a ball), which means it's going to be very tough to expand that presence into poorer countries where soccer has a much more established history. In terms of the U.S. market, I think the NFL has just about reached its saturation point.

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