Why We Need More Gay Rights Activism In Professional Sports

If American professional sports are built on hero-worship, then we need heroes who represent a more authentic America.

During a typical playoff season, the NFL is a whirlpool of chaos, cuts, and reorganization. Coaches are fired, salaries are renegotiated, and the 20 teams not in the running for this year’s championship spring headfirst into the mad scramble to do better next year.

But one cut last year didn’t feel right. Just ask former Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe, or better yet, read his open letter published earlier this month.

Off the field, Kluwe was far from your average NFL kicker. He devoted ample time to gay rights activism, campaigning against the Minnesota Gay Marriage Amendment, which, had it not been defeated in 2012, would have defined marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman. He graced the stage of the Family Equality Council’s award dinner in February 2013 and even appeared as the grand marshal of the Twin Cities’ PRIDE Parade last June. 

In the letter that addresses his recent firing, Kluwe identifies three members of the Minnesota Vikings staff—two coaches and the team’s General Manager—as “two cowards and a bigot,” detailing all the times he was dissuaded from and reprimanded for his involvement with LGBT issues. Kluwe points out that even though the Vikings legal department initially gave him the green light in 2012 (so long as he noted that his actions were not representative of the Vikings organization as a whole), and Vikings owner Zygi Wilf offered his personal support, someone within the organization was preventing various media outlets from contacting him.

Kluwe claims that special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer took many recent opportunities to get under his skin, spouting homophobic slurs in his presence and assuring him that he would “burn in hell with the gays.” According to Kluwe, Priefer’s caldron of hatred finally bubbled over in November 2013 when the coach suggested to his team, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.”

How’s that for locker room talk? Mike Priefer and Ritchie Incognito should hang out sometime.

The interesting thing about celebrity gay rights activists is that there are plenty of them, albeit in other public arenas. Cyndi Lauper writes articles and promotes progressive LGBT legislation at her concerts. Chaz Bono uses his platform as the son of one of America’s most beloved couples to advocate for transgender rights and acceptance. And I’m hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t break out into a grin during Sally Field’s speech in praise of her gay son at the Human Rights Campaign’s 2012 National Dinner. The difference between these advocates and Chris Kluwe is that their hands are not tied by an organization that covers up or dismisses anything uncomfortable.

The word “distraction” has been thrown around quite a bit in regard to Chris Kluwe, both during his campaigning and after his firing. And as demonstrated by a repeated readiness to sweep troubles like head injuries and rape allegations under the rug, professional and collegiate football organizations loathe nothing so much as a distraction.

The treatment of these distractions, however, is frustratingly inconsistent—Ben Roethlisberger remains with the Pittsburgh Steelers after dual allegations of sexual assault, but Kluwe heads up a gaggle of shirtless Minnesotan guys and rainbow balloons? Dude’s gotta go. 

I have to wonder how things would have played out if Roethlisberger’s and Kluwe’s “distractions” were reversed.

The other, more comfortable argument is that Kluwe was let go “strictly based on his football performance,” according to a statement issued by the Vikings. In comparison to quarterbacks, kickers cost less and are far more interchangeable. Of course, Kluwe also claims that he was under instruction by Mike Priefer to kick higher and shorter—a direction that would severely affect his statistical averages and give the Vikings cause to release him.      

Orders to “cease and desist” campaigning for gay rights are not unique to Kluwe’s situation, either. Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, a fellow gay rights activist, became the target of Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr.’s letter to the Ravens, advising the organization to “inhibit such expressions from your employee.” Kluwe came to Ayanbadejo’s defense in a response on Deadspin.com, asking Burns to reconsider reprimanding “a man whose only crime was speaking out for something he believed in.” Ayanbadejo has since returned the favor by backing up Kluwe’s belief that he was cut for his activism. 

What happens when the messages sent by professional sports don’t get on board with the rest of the country? Take this excerpt from John Amachi’s New York Times piece, “A Gay Former NBA Player Responds to Kobe Bryant,” following Bryant’s shouting a homophobic slur at a referee during a televised game:

“A young man from a Los Angeles public school e-mailed me. You are his idol. He is playing up, on the varsity team, he has your posters all over his room, and he hopes one day to play in college and then in the NBA with you. He used to fall asleep with images of passing you the ball to sink a game-winning shot. He watched every game you played this season on television, but this week he feels less safe and less positive about himself because he stared adoringly into your face as you said the word that haunts him in school every single day.”

If American professional sports are built on hero-worship, then we need heroes who represent a more authentic America. Heroes who are gay and heroes who are allies advocating social change. We need role models who instill a gentler masculinity in their young followers and demonstrate that being a man is about standing up for what’s right, not threatening to rape a teammate’s sister or wishing death upon those who are different.        

But unfortunately, for coaches like Mike Priefer and his two colleagues, it is far easier to find fault with the man trying to change the culture than with the culture itself.

Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications living in central Maryland. She writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, education, and the media. Find her on Twitter.

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