MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, a new law in California lets transgendered public school students pick the restroom they want to use based on the gender they identify with rather than the one in which they were born. We'll talk about the law and speak with our diverse panel of parents to see how they would talk about this at home. But first, a story that probably caught your attention if you follow pro football. But this is about an off-the-field controversy.
You may remember former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. He got some attention back in 2012 when he decided, as a straight man, to add his voice to those supporting marriage equality for same-sex couples. Last May, Kluwe was released by the Vikings, and he was not signed by another team. But just last week, Chris Kluwe published a letter on the website Deadspin where he asserts his view that he was released because of his activism. The letter was published under the headline "I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot." So let's hear it from him now. Chris Kluwe, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
CHRIS KLUWE: Thank you for having me on.
MARTIN: So let me start where you start - when you were released in May of 2013 - you said - a lot of people ask you if you thought it was because of your activism for same-sex marriage rights and you were very careful in how you answered the question. Your answer was always I honestly don't know 'cause I'm not in those meetings with the coaches and administrative people. And you say you honestly don't know, however, you're pretty confident it was. So why are you so confident now?
KLUWE: Well, because I look back at what happened and especially the series of events that I outlined that happened over that year. And really, in my mind, there's no logical conclusion that can be drawn other than that I was fired for my activism because my numbers and my stats were exactly the same. I was doing what the coaches wanted me to do and what I had been doing up to that point was enough to get me a very well-paying contract with the Vikings.
And I'd never had any indication that they were dissatisfied with my job performance. And so in my mind there was only one thing that changed from the year before to the year I got cut and that was I started speaking out in support same-sex rights.
MARTIN: The people that you call cowards are former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman. And you say they tried several times to get you to back off from some of your advocacy, from speaking out about these issues, from accepting interviews. And the bigot you refer to is Mike Priefer, the special teams coach. And you say that he made really aggressive homophobic slurs throughout the season. Presumably, he said this in front of other people, right?
KLUWE: Yeah, yeah. There were witnesses. And I've been very circumspect in kind of describing the details around it because, you know, I want to ensure that those witnesses are able to remain anonymous because being blacklisted in the NFL is a very real possibility. And this is something that could affect teammates' careers. This could affect, you know, friends that I've made over the years careers and that's not something I want to see happen to people that I know.
MARTIN: You have not been signed by another team, so do you think you've also been blacklisted in addition to having been released by the Vikings?
KLUWE: I don't know that it's blacklisting per se. I think what it is is that coaches and GM's tend to regard punters as a very replaceable position anyway. And with other teams, they see, OK, this guy was cut from the Vikings, he spoke out a lot - if we have the choice between signing and signing someone else who may not be as consistent but probably won't, you know, bring as much media attention, well, we're going to go with the guy who doesn't bring media attention because head coaches hate having attention on their teams.
MARTIN: Well, to the specific allegation against Mike Priefer, you say that one of the other reasons you're speaking out is that you feel that his level of bigotry is such that he should not have another coaching position or leadership position because his level of animus, in your view, disqualifies him. You say, specifically, that as you were walking into a special teams meeting, that he said we should round up all the gays, send them to an island and then nuke it until it glows. He has issued a statement specifically denying that he ever said any such thing.
KLUWE: Yeah. And, you know, I would be very surprised if he, you know, said, yeah, yeah that was me, I said it - because generally that's not how these things go. But, like I said, there are witnesses, there are people who saw and heard what happened and my main concern is making sure that there is no backlash against them because in the NFL if you became known as the guy who ratted out a coach or ratted out a teammate, then it's very, very hard for you to find work again.
MARTIN: Well, the Vikings - in the days since your letter came out, the Minnesota Vikings have hired two attorneys - one is a former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court, the other a former U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney - that they say they are taking your allegations seriously and that they are investigating. Do you believe that?
KLUWE: I do. I think it's a very good sign that they are, you know, hiring these independent investigators and looking into the matter. And, you know, one of the main things I want people to understand is that this isn't me against the Vikings. I love the Vikings. I had a great time with the Vikings. And the owner of the Vikings, Zygi Wilf, was very supportive of me. This is me and three very specific people, you know, who I had some issues with and who had issues with me. And hopefully this is a chance for the Vikings and the NFL to kind of examine this problem and, you know, see what goes on and hopefully take some steps to fix it.
MARTIN: After your letter last week, the Vikings released a statement reiterating that you were let go for performance. And I'm sure you would know that this is true - that we reached out to them for further comment or if they wanted to join our conversation. They did not respond to that. But having said all that, they insist that you were let go for performance. Does it mean anything to you that you were not picked up by another team? I mean, you ranked 17th in the NFL in punting that season, the season before you were released. And you lost a competition for the punting job with the Oakland Raiders in the pre-season in 2013. So how should your random fan look at that?
KLUWE: Right. And I think the way to look at that is, as I detailed in the letter, I was doing exactly what the Vikings coaches wanted me to do, which was to kick it higher and shorter to give our coverage teams a better chance to cover the ball. And, you know, at no point did they tell me that we're dissatisfied with your performance. And with the Raiders, the kid who beat me out, Marquette King, also happened to finish first in the NFL this year in terms of punting average. So I'm OK with getting beat out by, you know - by someone who was the best punter in the NFL this year.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with former NFL punter Chris Kluwe. He's an advocate for marriage equality. He's straight himself, but he feels that his outspokenness cost him his job with the Minnesota Vikings. He penned a recent letter, which was published on the website Deadspin. It's "I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot." You know, writers really choose their own headlines. Do you cosign - that's a pretty blunt, you know, indictment. Do you cosign that? Do you think that's fair?
KLUWE: Yeah, I actually was the one who came up with it because I know Deadspin likes, you know, kind of the attention-grabby headlines. And that was one of the lines in the letter so I figured they would gravitate towards it. And, you know, it's - in my belief, it's the truth. It's the fact that here were two people - Leslie Frazier and Rick Spielman in leadership positions, who had the chance to be leaders and say we may not agree with this kid speaking out, we may not agree with what he's saying, but you know what?
He has done everything that we've asked him to do. He's been a contributing factor to this team for eight years, and we're going to keep him. We're going to keep him at least one more year and let him finish out his contract because he is still playing at an NFL caliber level. And in terms of a bigot, I mean, someone who says let's round up all the gays, put them on an island and nuke it until it glows - well, I'm pretty sure that's the definition of being a bigot.
MARTIN: Let's talk about the coward piece, though. You talked about how there were specific people in the front office who approached you and asked you to tone it down. And not to accept certain interviews - well, go ahead. You can describe it however you want.
KLUWE: Well, I was going to say, it wasn't so much tone it down. It was don't speak on this at all, which I think is a very key distinction because if it had been tone it down, then it's like, OK, yeah. I can understand that. But to come up and say you can't speak about this at all, in my mind, that tells me that, OK, that's not right. That's not...
MARTIN: It's the what, not the how 'cause I was going to - and I appreciate your making that distinction 'cause I was going to address the how...
MARTIN: ...Because one of your allies in this cause has been Brendon Ayanbadejo then of the Baltimore Ravens. He's also a straight professional football player. And he was attacked by a Maryland state lawmaker who didn't like him speaking out, and wrote this letter suggesting that he stick to the game and, you know, keep his opinions to himself. And you wrote him back, a public letter. The gentleman's name is Emmett Burns, and I'm trying to find a portion that's safe for radio. Let me see if I can...
KLUWE: There's a lot of of's and and's in there.
MARTIN: Let me see, you've got some of's and and's here. Let me find it. Here it is. I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of the United States' government. Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level. The views you espouse neglect to consider several fundamental key points, which I will outline in great detail. And you go on to suggest that maybe an intern could help him with the bigger words. So, you know, funny by one point of view, snarky by, you know, another point of view. Some people might consider it kind of beneath the dignity of either of you. And you're kind of falling to his level, if I may say it that way. And so I wondered if you think it might be the how and not the what.
KLUWE: Oh, I'm sure the letter drove some people off because, you know, that's - my writing style was developed by playing a lot of online video games and frequenting message boards. And I found that a very effective communication tool was to write something that was scathing, funny, but also had a logically reasoned point behind it because people remember the humorous insult part of it, and then that triggers what your actual argument was.
And then they start talking about, OK, what was the point that was being tried - what was he trying to make here? And that's what I did in that letter. And the thing is it may have been hyperbolic at times, it may have been a little over-the-top, but at the core of it was the fact that no matter what language I used, the message that I was saying was why are you trying oppress other people? And no matter what language he didn't use, the core of Emmett Burns' letter was you should not be talking, don't speak. And I think that, you know, people need to look past the surface and see what is actually being said here.
MARTIN: Can I ask you - and you may consider this completely ridiculous and so I'll take it if you do - but did you have any thoughts about the "Duck Dynasty" controversy then since you argued that the issue is that you should not be deprived of your livelihood because of your political and personal views, which were separate from your work as a professional football player. And I think those people are saying the same thing. They're saying that the views that Phil Robertson, who is one of the stars of this reality show "Duck Dynasty," expressed were never expressed on the air, as part of that program. And yet, A&E suspended him saying that that was not in keeping with their corporate values. Do you have any thoughts about that?
KLUWE: Yeah. I do...
MARTIN: I mean, he of course expressed the opposite view.
MARTIN: That he feels that same-sex relationships are wrong and not biblical. And he expressed a number of other political views that many people find abhorrent.
KLUWE: Yeah, and that's actually something I've heard people discuss. And the thing is with my piece, I am relating a story of what happened and this is why believed I was fired. I never said that the Vikings couldn't fire me for doing that. I mean, as a private corporation, they totally have the right to do that, same with Phil Robertson. We both are entitled to our beliefs. We're both entitled to our views, and we're allowed to speak out on those views.
However, we are both also entitled to the consequences of those views. And I think the important distinction between what I'm speaking out on and what Phil Robertson is speaking out on is that my set of views is trying to enable rights for people who don't currently have them. It's trying to allow them to live free of oppression. Phil Robertson's views are these people should not have these rights, they should not be treated like human beings. And that's not the basis of a sound society. That's not a fundamentally good system to live under because eventually, those people will want their rights and all too often, that comes into conflict.
MARTIN: I do want to ask - and, you know, forgive me again, this is one of those situations where I don't know exactly how it works. If Mike Priefer is picked up by another team, particularly in a - he's been interviewed not just for special teams positions, as I understand it, for head-coaching positions.
MARTIN: If he is selected for a head coaching position, will you feel that you failed, and what will you think that says?
KLUWE: I won't feel that I failed. I'll be a little disappointed in the NFL 'cause, you know, I think this is something that as a business, you should probably be examining - hey, is this the type of message we want to send? At the same time, you know, I think if Mike Priefer is willing to make a legitimate effort to actually educate himself and learn why what he said was so hateful, then, you know, at some point, I'm not averse for him to coming back and coaching because he is a good special teams coach. I never had any problems with, you know, with his actual schemes or game plans. It was more just on that topic, for whatever reason, he did not agree with me.
MARTIN: What do you think this says overall? I mean, there's been a lot of talk about whether an openly gay man can play professional football in the United States? What do you hope we draw from your statement?
KLUWE: Yeah, I think, in terms of the broader message, that while we have made strides over the past couple years and there has been a lot of progress in the NFL and in the sporting world in general - I mean, the acceptance for same-sex rights is getting higher and higher and higher. However, there is still a lot of work to be done, and this isn't really a quick solution to a problem. This is something that's going to take time. It's like integration in, you know - in baseball. It's like integration in football. It's like integration in sports and society in general.
I mean, whenever you have a class of people that have been denied their rights being integrated into society, then there is going to be a period. And, unfortunately, it's usually a long period where those people still have to put up with backwards attitudes, they still have to put up with demeaning comments. But all we can do is call out when that happens, and make people aware of the consequences of that. And say, hey, as a society, we're not willing to travel that path anymore. We think people should have rights. We don't think they should be, you know, treated poorly.
MARTIN: Why - and this is - my question is not intended to imply that this issue is not an important issue because it is an important issue. I am interested in why it's so important to you since, as I noted, this is not your personal issue. You are a straight man, and you do have the legal right to marry anywhere in the country that you choose. So why has this become so important to you?
KLUWE: Well, for me, the way my parents raised me was to treat other people the way you'd like to be treated, which I think is a very good parenting technique. I'm going to use it on my own children. And also, it's about recognizing the fact that even though I may enjoy those rights right now, there's no guarantee that that will happen in the future. I mean, that's one of the things. If you're not willing to speak out for the rights of other people, then, well, who do you expect to speak out for you when it's your turn. There's a very famous World War II poem where it's - first they came for the homosexuals, and I said nothing because I was not a homosexual.
Then they came for a communists and I said nothing because I was not a communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I said nothing because I was not a Jew. And then they came for me and there was no one left to say anything. And I think that really sums it up - is that as a society, we have to be willing to speak out for those whose rights are being trampled because one day, it may be our turn.
MARTIN: Was it worth it?
KLUWE: Yeah, it was worth it. I got eight years in the NFL. That's more than, you know, 99.9 percent of the population's ever going to see. I had a good run, but at the end of the day, football is essentially a children's game. You're running around kicking and throwing a ball around, whereas, basic human rights, that's kind of the foundation of civilization.
MARTIN: What are you going to do now?
KLUWE: Probably continue writing. I seem to enjoy doing that. Watch my daughters grow up. You don't get a lot of time to do that during the season since football takes up so much time. But yeah, just see what life throws at me.
MARTIN: Chris Kluwe is a former punter with the Minnesota Vikings. He's an advocate for same-sex marriage and author of "Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities." He joined us from Costa Mesa, California. Chris Kluwe, thanks so much for speaking with us.
KLUWE: Yeah, no problem. Thank you for having me on.
MARTIN: We want to mention once again that we reached out to the Vikings and the NFL for comment. The NFL says it has no further comment. And we haven't heard back yet from the Vikings.