Did Activism Cost Punter His NFL Job?

Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe says he was fired for speaking out about gay marriage rights — not poor performance. Is he right or just resentful? Host Michel Martin checks in with the barbershop guys for a fresh cut on that topic and other news.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael, with us from Cleveland. From NPR West, which is in Culver City, California, Rick Najera. He's a television and film writer, producer, director, actor. He does it all. Here in our Washington, D.C. studios, Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root and Dave Zirin, a sports editor for The Nation. He says that he's snowed in. So he's still snuggled up behind his coal stove, so.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVE ZIRIN: Man.

MARTIN: Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. Hey, fellas. Welcome to the shop. How we doing?

COREY DADE: Oh, we're doing good. I'm getting a fade right now.

(LAUGHTER)

IZRAEL: Is that the truth? OK. Well, you know what? Let's get things started. Former Minnesota Vikings punter, Chris Kluwe, you know, he dropped a bomb yesterday and not necessarily by kicking a football. The website Deadspin published an open letter from Kluwe called "I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot." Wow. That has all kind of SEO problems...

MARTIN: Wow.

IZRAEL: ...As a title. But anyway...

DADE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: ...That's crazy, Michel.

MARTIN: Well, he says - well, first of all, just to set the table here - he is one of a handful of professional athletes who are not gay who decided that they wanted to become allies of the gay rights movement, right, and speak up in support of gay rights. You might remember that Ravens - a former Ravens linebacker, Brendon Ayanbadejo, spoke to us last year. Chris Kluwe spoke to one of our colleagues. And I'll just play a clip from that conversation. This was from last summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

CHRIS KLUWE: There's no reason that we should be discriminating against people in the United States of America considering how many times we've fought this battle before. We've fought this with slavery. We've fought it with suffrage, and we fought it with segregation. And it seems like every 50 to 60 years we keep having that same stupid war over people who want to control other people's lives versus those who just want to be free to live and to love other people.

MARTIN: So here - OK, so in May of 2013, he was released from the Vikings. And at the time, he says a lot of people asked him if he thought it was because of his activism. And he says he honestly doesn't know. So he says, I honestly don't know if my activism was the reason I got fired. However, I'm pretty confident it was. And then he goes on to tell you why he thinks that. So there it is.

DADE: Yeah.

IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. Kluwe. Kluwe. Kluwe.

ZIRIN: Wow.

IZRAEL: Kluwe. Yeah, he's...

MARTIN: Well, let me tell you...

IZRAEL: He's got some issues.

MARTIN: ...One more thing, though. Let me tell you one more thing 'cause Mike Priefer says - the special teams coach, said, you know, some - he said that one of his reasons for speaking out was that he feels that Mike Priefer should not have anything to do with coaching anybody, that he's made explicit homophobic slurs. And one of the reasons he said he wrote this piece is that he doesn't think he should be coaching anywhere. So...

IZRAEL: So thank you, Michel. So it sounds as if he's riding hard, but he wasn't riding hard enough to make this claim while he was still on the team. He decided to make this claim, you know, sometime later in an essay, in a, like, overlong essay.

I mean, I respect his right to advocate for whomever he wants to advocate for. But, you know, they still have this thing called getting fired for cause. And as it happens, you know, he was underperforming. You know, at the time he was let go - now it's great that he's an advocate for gays and lesbians. That's cool. But if you work in the mail room, you can't be on Twitter all day, you know, advocating for saving the whales and then there's mail to be put out. I mean, you're going to lose your job. You're not going to lose your job...

ZIRIN: Well...

DADE: Yeah, but...

IZRAEL: ...You're trying to save the whales. You're going to lose your job because you're not doing your job.

DADE: Yeah, but, Jimi, I don't think it's that simple, though.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Corey.

IZRAEL: It may not in fact be that simple. But, I mean...

MARTIN: Well, let's hear some other voices on this. OK, Corey.

IZRAEL: Go ahead, Corey. Drop it.

DADE: I mean - I mean, well, first of all, he had an injury, had a torn meniscus, and he needed surgery. So his performance did go down. But, you know, in the NFL, punters in particular are recycled. I mean, the guy had been in the league for eight years.

RICK NAJERA: Eight years.

DADE: That is an eternity in the league. The average lifespan, career-span of an NFL player is about, what, Dave? What? Two years?

ZIRIN: Three and a half years.

DADE: Two and a half? Yeah.

ZIRIN: Three and a half.

DADE: So three and a half. So he's been in there for eight. So he has proved his medal. He can get over an injury and come back. But at the end of the day, you know, he made it easier for him to be fired. They can say it was for performance.

But the truth of the matter is, there are always punters and placekickers, in particular, who have moments of inconsistencies, moments of slump. I think what's interesting in what he wrote is he described the process...

ZIRIN: Exactly.

DADE: ...Of the consequences that happened. And the fact that before his play went down, you know, his coach in particular - and his coaches in particular, started actually criticizing him because of his anti-gay - I mean, because of his stance against the anti-gay movement in Minnesota, when his owner actually said you're doing a great thing. Keep up the good work.

ZIRIN: Yeah.

DADE: I thought that was a key point. Looking at the process of how his coaches in particular turned against him, I think, was the eye-opener here for everyone.

MARTIN: Dave?

ZIRIN: That's exactly right.

MARTIN: Dave? Dave, let me just tell you one other thing. Priefer denies all. He had his own written statement last night. And the Vikings said that they're going to investigate those comments, but they also insist that he was cut strictly for performance reasons, Dave.

NAJERA: Of course.

MARTIN: So go ahead.

ZIRIN: Right.

MARTIN: No, Dave. Go ahead.

ZIRIN: You know, Priefer said, some of my best family members are gay. Here's the thing about the story that's so interesting. Corey said it exactly right. This is the sports equivalent of an Edward Snowden moment because this is about whistle blowing.

This is about doing the thing that, frankly, fans are never really allowed to do, which is see how the process of policing politics actually takes place inside the locker room. And that's what gives this article such value, regardless of Kluwe's value as a punter.

He walks us through the stages - called into the coach's office, being told sports and politics don't mix, getting weird surreptitious texts from the general manager Rick Spielman, saying, hey, cut it out with the tweeting.

And then of course, the real bomb - and I really do pardon the expression on bomb - was his allegation that his special teams coach Mike Priefer, who has control over his employment, said in a loud voice in front of his teammates that he thought all gay people should be put on an island and that island should be nuked. It raises...

NAJERA: Until it glows.

ZIRIN: ...All kinds of questions about workplace and about the rights, frankly, to have a harassment-free workplace.

NAJERA: It, you know - also...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Rick. Rick, what'd you want to say about this?

NAJERA: I just wanted to say that, you know, first of all, I'm a Latino. So I'm used to this kind of stuff all the time.

And I think as African-American men, you feel the same way. It's odd that he went for the first time - went, oh, my God, there's prejudice and racism and homophobia and things like this, when he took a stand. So he actually documented it.

But I've - you know, most of us have seen this kind of work all the time. We know what happens when you stand up for anything in your job. And he'd never had it happen to him before. So this was a new experience to him - was, you know, prejudiced which I think was fascinating.

DADE: I think athletes - for athletes, I think it's all the more interesting because athletes have the highest possible profile to do anything. And when they go into the world of seriousness and advocate for anything political, there is a backlash. I'll remind us of what Michael Jordan said in response to criticism that he didn't take a bigger stand on issues of the day. He said, republicans go to games and buy sneakers, too.

IZRAEL: You know...

DADE: That speaks volumes.

IZRAEL: ...This - it does speak volumes.

MARTIN: So what are you saying though?

DADE: I'm saying that athletes...

MARTIN: Are you saying that he shouldn't have...

DADE: ...No. I'm saying that his calculation was that, I have fans across the political spectrum. And if I take a stand on one thing, I alienate fans on the other.

So for him, it's a business decision. Whereas people like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, etc., they actually risked their careers in the '60s to actually take steps - and Jackie Robinson, too - risked their careers to get behind the civil rights movement. And today, you don't see as much of that happening.

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Can I ask Rick this? I wanted to ask Rick this because entertainment - it seems very similar in a sense that it's a big world, but it's also a small world, right? And a lot of relationships matter. I mean, is this the kind of thing you think that even though - I would think same-sex marriage rights or gay rights is a - I think a more - a popular cause in Hollywood.

NAJERA: You know...

MARTIN: But...

NAJERA: ...It's a popular cause...

MARTIN: But if it's something that's not - do you think that something like this would cost somebody a job in your field?

NAJERA: You know, what costs a job is - football works the same way as Hollywood does. There is a boss that has your job all the time, and there's a million people that want your job. So that's the same problem he's got, you know?

There's a lot of people that want to take over his job and will do it gladly. And if you're the guy that doesn't say a word, you know, comes to work, does his job, and leaves, you have a better chance of survival. And that's true in Hollywood.

So what he did was he actually spoke up for a cause that he probably thought, this is a no-brainer. It's not exactly a hard cost. You're not doing anything that's really that radical, but it was for NFL...

ZIRIN: Yeah.

NAJERA: ...For football and for the sports world and culture. It was radical to say it's OK for same-sex marriage. And that to me is surprising. And you see this homophobia in the league and things like this. Of course, it's not the same in Hollywood, but in football, yeah. We're still going back a decade or two.

MARTIN: Jimi...

IZRAEL: Speaking...

MARTIN: ...What do you want to say? You don't think so. You don't buy that. You're not buying that. You think - I'm still not - Jimi, I'm just not sure where I feel like you're coming from on this. Are you saying he...

IZRAEL: I - I think...

MARTIN: ...Should have kept his mouth shut? Or he should have been...

IZRAEL: No, no.

MARTIN: ... Prepared for this?

IZRAEL: Where I'm coming from is this - is that his claims don't ring true to me. I mean, I think 15 years ago, if he made this claim, I think I might've given it more weight. But I was listening to something on the radio, I think, the other day. It may have been, like, Monday or Tuesday - and it was probably NPR 'cause that's all I listen to - they were saying that, you know, that this - that this was, like, the gayest year - like 2013 was, like, the gayest - the year of the gays.

So it's, like, wait a second. You know, I mean, 'cause they're making all these strides. They're making all these appearances. Other people are rioting and advocating for the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender community. So now, you know, now after you're not with this organization, you're going to come out with this claim at this time that you were somehow pushed out because of your advocacy - no, no.

MARTIN: Isn't that a little like saying...

ZIRIN: Jimi...

MARTIN: Wait a minute - isn't that a little like saying that because there's a black president, there's no racial profiling in the world?

ZIRIN: And, also...

NAJERA: No, no.

MARTIN: Isn't that same kind of argument just because there are gains in one area, doesn't mean that people still don't have attitudes?

DADE: I think now there's pushback. That's what's happening.

IZRAEL: OK, for me -

ZIRIN: Exactly.

DADE: Now it's pushback.

ZIRIN: I mean, sports is in a different century. People have to realize Chris Kluwe doesn't have a job. Brendon Ayanbadejo, the person you mentioned before, not - doesn't have a job in the NFL.

DADE: That's right.

ZIRIN: Jason Collins is still waiting by the phone to see if he can get a job in the National Basketball Association. Sports has started to sound a different rhetoric on LGBT rights. There are new antidiscrimination statutes in the NBA and in the NHL.

There's more public service announcements. But when it comes to the actual locker room culture, what you hear when you talk to coaches - when I talk to coaches - is, you don't want distractions.

You don't want distractions. And that distractions has become the kind of buzz word and co-word to say, you don't want people speaking out about this issue because it'll hurt us on the bottom line. And the bottom line is both team performance and profitability in terms to appealing to as wide a fan base as possible.

MARTIN: Let's wheel around to another sports topic. And if you're just joining us, you're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by sports editor Dave Zirin - that's who was speaking just now - writer Jimi Izrael, journalist Corey Dade and film television writer, actor, producer Rick Najera. Let's talk about basketball player Dwyane Wade. The Miami Heat star comes out that he's fathered a child with another woman while he says he was on a break from his now fiancee, actress Gabrielle Union. He's taking, well...

NAJERA: I didn't know you could have a break from that.

MARTIN: I wanted to say he's taking heat for it, but that was too...

IZRAEL: Evidently.

MARTIN: ...Corny. So I can't even say that. So we talked about this yesterday in our roundtable of women journalists and commentators. So I would like to ask the guys - Corey's acting like he would like to dive under the table. But I'm saying - oh, the guys aren't talking about this, but maybe they should be talking about it.

NAJERA: Oh, I'll talk about it.

IZRAEL: Well.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

NAJERA: It's responsibility, that's really...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Rick.

NAJERA: ...What we're talking about. It's responsibility. He was irresponsible, yet he was also responsible that he actually said, this is my baby, I acknowledge my baby, and I will take care of my baby. But, you know, let's just face it, in this day and age, you get a woman pregnant, I mean - I'm not - I've been out of the dating scene for 11 years, but I believe in condoms.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: It goes a little deeper than that. It goes a little deeper than that because he had...

NAJERA: Oh, it went deep. It went deep.

IZRAEL: ...He was in a relationship.

MARTIN: OK.

IZRAEL: He was in a relationship with Gabrielle Union.

MARTIN: What brought up - one of the arguments that Keli Goff made yesterday in the Beauty Shop - that, you know, at an age where sexually transmitted disease is still an issue...

NAJERA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And that people of his particular demographic are more likely to be affected by HIV/AIDS than other demographic groups. That just on that basis alone, that he should have taken more precautions and that...

IZRAEL: Of course.

MARTIN: ...It shows a terrible example of poor judgment.

IZRAEL: And not for nothing, you know, this is where it gets a little Barbershop. The young lady he had the baby with, you know, she had another baby by one of the Wiyans (ph)...

NAJERA: (Coughs) Groupie.

IZRAEL: ...Clan. The Wayans clan...

NAJERA: (Coughs) Groupie.

IZRAEL: I'm sorry.

NAJERA: (Coughs) Groupie.

IZRAEL: So, I mean, she could be a professional.

DADE: The Wayans clan.

ZIRIN: The Wiyans (ph)?

IZRAEL: You know what I'm saying?

MARTIN: OK, but so what's the relevance of that? What're you saying there?

IZRAEL: What I'm saying...

MARTIN: What's the relevance for you?

NAJERA: Groupie.

DADE: She went from comedy to sports.

IZRAEL: Here's what I'm suggesting, that she could be a professional baby mama. And he owed it to himself...

ZIRIN: OK, Jimi...

IZRAEL: ...To protect himself.

ZIRIN: ...Aren't we all raising one of the Wayans' children at this point?

(LAUGHTER)

ZIRIN: I mean, I don't expect it to be held against her at all. I mean, my neighbors have, like, four and a half of them. I mean, come on.

NAJERA: I worked with a Wayans. I was a writer "In Living Color." So they are a lot of fun.

IZRAEL: There you go. They're everywhere.

ZIRIN: They're everywhere. You can't fault her with that.

MARTIN: Well, Corey was saying that he doesn't think there's any larger meaning here to discuss it.

DADE: Well, I think there's - well, I think there's always a larger meaning to anything that happens in people's lives. You can always - we're not separated from societal norms 'cause we live in society. But I think - I don't know that this is a question of irresponsibility, so much as perhaps being dishonest and being careless.

NAJERA: That's irresponsibility.

IZRAEL: I mean...

MARTIN: The question becomes...

DADE: But it's a question of who he's being...

MARTIN: ...Should he set a higher standard for himself?

DADE: ...But it's a question about who he's being irresponsible to.

MARTIN: Right.

DADE: You're only irresponsible...

IZRAEL: His family, his legacy.

DADE: Well, I don't see his legacy being damaged by this at all. I think the real damage is done perhaps to his relationship with Gabrielle Union.

But she took that rock, so I get the impression that they may have decided that this is something that, as a couple, that they can actually weather. I mean, let's remember, she stuck with that dude through all the drama with his ex-wife...

ZIRIN: Yep.

DADE: ...All of the drama. And that put off them being together. That put off them getting married, etc. So now this is another setback. Perhaps at this point, they have found ways to cope where they can actually - where she believes they can actually have an authentic marriage.

NAJERA: Well, you know, I wish them luck.

IZRAEL: Good luck with that.

NAJERA: Yeah, good luck with that. And there's a lot of different expressions of love and relationships all over the world.

DADE: Well, I don't know any self-respecting woman who marries a man thinking that they can't have an authentic marriage. Let's be honest here. I'm not saying it can happen, but you have to believe that...

NAJERA: Well, she's compromising.

MARTIN: Is there any relevance to the rest of us?

DADE: ...Your marriage and your relationship a strong.

MARTIN: I think, is there any relevance to the rest of us?

NAJERA: Yes.

IZRAEL: What about the children?

MARTIN: Yeah, go ahead, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Don't the children deserve some dignity? I mean, let's...

MARTIN: What's your point? So you're saying - what's your point in terms of how we should think about this, if at all?

IZRAEL: We should think about Dwyane Wade as the author of a book about fatherhood who's out there playing Johnny Appleseed with his seed. And he's got two seeds at home that are watching. And he's trying to hold himself as some kind of role model.

DADE: Yeah, but...

IZRAEL: This is a problem. This is a real problem.

NAJERA: But I think he's still a role model.

IZRAEL: Of what?

NAJERA: Being a role model implies somehow you don't make a mistake. Role models make mistakes. People make mistakes. Everyone's a role model to somebody. That's the truth of the matter...

MARTIN: So then maybe the question is how he handles this going forward.

NAJERA: ...The question is how he handles it going forward, how he takes care of this new child, how he explains this to his sons.

ZIRIN: Union rights have taken a terrible beating in the 21st century. I just feel...

MARTIN: OK.

ZIRIN: Sorry.

NAJERA: That's a good point.

MARTIN: Goodbye. I will ask the other gentleman here, but we have time for just some very quick picks of - you know, playoffs are this weekend - so, Rick, I understand that you've got some skin in the game this weekend.

NAJERA: Yeah. Yeah.

MARTIN: You're a Chargers fan.

NAJERA: I'm a Chargers fan, so...

MARTIN: So you like the spread this weekend?

NAJERA: I'm from San Diego, and I got to say, the Chargers are going to totally annihilate the Cincinnati Bengals. It's going to be painful for them, and I'm sorry to see it happen. But the Chargers will win. I predict it right now...

MARTIN: OK.

NAJERA: ...And you can hold me on it.

MARTIN: OK, Corey Dade.

DADE: Ooo.

MARTIN: Well, you know we'll be playing that, like, repeatedly, right? Corey Dade.

DADE: Well, you know, as long as the Cowboys aren't in it, you know, I'm...

MARTIN: It's all good to you?

DADE: No, but I have a sentimental favorite. I want to see the Bengals go all the way 'cause I think Marvin Lewis has done a masterful job of creating a winning culture there and a very organized culture.

MARTIN: OK, Dave Zirin is the pro. How - well, yeah...

ZIRIN: I mean, I'm professionally paid to talk about this.

MARTIN: Exactly, so, yes.

ZIRIN: So that doesn't make me a pro. But I think the Philadelphia Eagle. A lot of people are picking the Saints. The field is going to be covered in snow. It's going to look beautiful on television - be murder to be sitting in the stands, but watch the Eagles to beat the Saints this weekend.

NAJERA: Oh. Oh.

MARTIN: Jimi, you don't care.

IZRAEL: I might as well go Bengals. Why not? They're in Ohio.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Jimi Izrael is a writer. He joined us from Cleveland. Dave Zirin is a sports editor for The Nation magazine and host of Sirius XM Edge of Sports radio, with us from his cozy hot chocolate, wherever he is.

ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: With us in Culver City, California, Rick Najera...

NAJERA: Yep.

MARTIN: ...Film and television writer and actor, author of "Almost White: Forced Confessions of a Latino in Hollywood." And Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root, here in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much.

NAJERA: Thank you.

DADE: Yessir.

ZIRIN: Peace out.

IZRAEL: Yep.

MARTIN: And if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE.

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