A conversation with Chris Kluwe

This September, Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo made headlines for his public support of gay marriage. Although many people championed Ayanbedejo for his courage in a culture that often punishes athletes for speaking out on social issues, Maryland State delegate Emmitt Burns found fault with the linebacker’s public endorsement. Burns took it upon himself to write a letter to Ravens’ owner Steve Bisciotti, asking him to punish Ayanbadejo for his attempts to “step into this controversial divide and try to sway public opinion one way or the other.”

The night that Burns’ letter was released, Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe crafted a public response to the delegate and sent it to Deadspin.com to be published the next morning.

Kluwe’s response quickly went viral, generating over 2.25 million page views as of December 5.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Kluwe, where we discussed LGBT rights, NFL culture, and the future of society.

TMW: What prompted you to respond to Emmitt Burns’ letter to [Steve Bisciotti]?

Chris Kluwe: When I first read it, I thought it was kind of a messed up thing to write. So I was like, ‘Okay that sucks, but whatever, I’m gonna go to sleep [because] I have practice the next day.’ So I was lying in bed, and I literally couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about this letter over and over and I’m just like, ‘I have to write something in response because this is messed up,’ and so I got my laptop out, jotted down some stuff, finished it in about an hour and then sent it off to Deadspin [a popular sports blog], and then slept like a baby.

And you had contributed to them before, during the [NFL] lockout?

Yeah, exactly. So I knew a couple people there. I sent it off, and primarily the reason it made me so upset was the fact that here was a guy [Burns], who, as a first amendment issue, is an elected official trying to stifle someone’s free speech. You can’t do that. I remember that the day it was created, a bunch of my friends shared it on Facebook.

Can you tell me about how it went viral?

You know, it’s funny because the Deadspin guy sent me an email and was like, ‘Hey we put it up.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, cool.’ So I was at practice and I looked at my phone, and I’m like, ‘Okay, cool, it’s up,’ and then about twenty minutes later, it’s like 300 Twitter notifications. 700 Twitter notifications. 1,500 Twitter notifications. And I’m just like, ‘Oh boy.’

Have any of your peers talked to you in person about your support of LGBT rights? I know that [former teammate] Matt Birk took issue with your response letter. But has it been predominantly supportive?

I think he had some Catholic guilt with that one [laughs]. Yeah, it’s been overwhelmingly supportive. I’d say that half the guys that came up to me said, ‘We may not agree with you on the same sex marriage issue, but we appreciate that you stood up for Brendon, because it definitely was a first amendment issue.’ And then the other half was like, ‘We support everything you said. We think you did the right thing.’ And that’s including guys from other teams, before games. They’ve come up and said, ‘Hey, great job writing the letter, we really appreciate it.’

Do you think that would have been the case ten years ago?

Probably not.

How would you describe the NFL’s attitude in general towards LGBT rights?

It’s still homophobic, but it’s changing because as younger kids grow up and enter the NFL, they’re being raised in a more tolerant atmosphere, so they look at it like, ‘This doesn’t affect me, why should it matter?’ And I think that’s part of how history works. As the old people die off, the younger people grow up and they have their own views on things. And I think this is going to be one of those issues where 20, 30 years from now, we’re going to look back and think, ‘What was the big deal?’

Why do you think there is a culture of silence regarding social issues in professional sports?

Because it can be a distraction, and it’s really hard to make it to that level in the first place, and to potentially give up that job? For a lot of guys it’s a dream they’ve had since childhood, and to risk that for something that you don’t necessarily have to speak out on? It can be tough. This is your job. This is how you pay for your kids and your family. For a lot of guys, they may feel that way, but they can’t come out and say it because then all of a sudden, using my case for example, there’s media everywhere, and I have a bad punt, and everyone’s like, ‘He’s talking too much.’ The whole distraction card. And you know, that’s not the case. I had a bad punt. But for a lot of guys, why risk that when you don’t have to?

What do you think would be the cultural impact of a player coming out? We haven’t had a player come out while they were currently playing [in major American professional sports]. What do you think would happen? Do you think that would spark a worldwide discussion?

I think it would. I think there would be media attention, probably for a couple weeks, but then after that people would realize, ‘Hey, he’s playing. This is just another player who happens to be gay.’ And I think it would be kind of tough at first, because there would still definitely be parts of society that wouldn’t agree with it, but there would also be a lot more support than I think that person realizes. There would people like me, Brendon, Connor Barwin with the Texans, Scott Fujita [of the Cleveland Browns]. We’re all trying to make it a better place to play, [and] say that it doesn’t matter who you are, it matters what you do on the field.

What are your thoughts on the current political climate for LGBT rights? I know that the Minnesotan marriage amendment failed, and in Maine and Washington and Maryland, those passed. What do you think is happening in society? Do you think we’re trending in the right direction?

I think the older people are dying [laughs]. I think as a society, we’re realizing that it really doesn’t matter what your sexuality is. That does not define you as a person. Your actions define you as a person. And I think we’re seeing that this is a civil rights struggle, just like segregation, and suffrage, and slavery were, in that a group of people is being denied rights that they should have, that everyone else has. And that’s not right, that’s discrimination.

Do you see the NFL making progress on social issues?

They’re still a little hesitant, because the NFL is a broad market appeal business. They want to appeal to as many customers as possible. In the past, that’s meant that [their view toward] general social issues [like] LGBT rights is that there aren’t any. And as we’re moving forward, you’re seeing that people are starting to realize that this is the wrong thing to do. The NFL and other sports are kind of catching on to that, because these are people who are customers. These are people who watch your sports. And you’re not tapping into that yet. From a business standpoint, it makes more sense to be tolerant, because then you get a wider audience. I think it’s slowly changing. It’ll probably keep changing, but it’ll just take time.