Jock talk

Sports can be an avenue for social change — until those who play the games are silenced.

Former NFL punter Chris Kluwe was released from the Minnesota Vikings in May, and last week, he revealed in an article that he believes he was cut for publicly promoting same-sex marriage.

There’s a somewhat tenable football reason for the Vikings snipping Kluwe: he was an average player in an easily replaceable position.

Still, the punter makes a convincing case for his unfair termination, and in doing so, has unearthed the ignorance at play in some corners of the NFL.

Special teams coach Mike Priefer is the villain of the narrative. Kluwe alleges that he berated him for supporting gay rights and said, “we should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.”

Priefer’s alleged bigotry is abhorrent, but it overshadowed another troubling reaction: the disapproval of the Vikings’ head coach and general manager, who ordered Kluwe to stop speaking out.

Advocating for marriage equality, like anything exogenous to football, was seen as an impediment to the sacred pursuit of wins.

Charged with assembling and leading a successful team, Vikings brass feared that team would collapse if one player dared express an individual thought.

It’s not a story of an athlete being reprimanded for preaching tolerance, but of a club believing openness and performance can’t coexist. It’s a lazy argument, one that inhibits the power of games to create change.

Through the years, sports have been a source of social watersheds. The pleas of soccer player Didier Drogba helped end the First Ivorian Civil War in the mid-2000s. Last April, basketball centre Jason Collins became the first active North American athlete to come out as gay.

People like Kluwe facilitate this progress, but some people prefer athletes that play ball, peddle products and shut up.

Certain players, reluctant to publicize any partisan stance, take this mantra to heart. Michael Jordan, for instance, balked when asked to endorse a black Democratic Senate candidate in 1990. “Republicans buy shoes too,” he said.

Kluwe’s activism, conversely, is a refreshing changeup, and a necessary dose of reality. If speaking out against prejudice is seen as nothing more than an affront to football, we value sports too highly.

Nick is the Journal’s Sports Editor. He’s a third-year politics student.

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