Itâ??s not often that an undersized college defensive end is grabbing many headlines heading into the National Football Leagueâ??s draft, but in May all eyes will be on Missouriâ??s Michael Sam.
Thatâ??s because once signed, Sam will become the first openly gay player in NFL history, a league not exactly renowned for its tolerance of homosexuality.
Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe says he became the target of the leagueâ??s underlying bigotry in 2012 when he became an advocate for same-sex marriage rights.
Kluwe, who is not himself gay, began advocating for marriage equality at the start of the 2012 season. The eight-year NFL veteran made headlines with a scathing letter addressed to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. lambasting the legislator over his plea to stifle players from speaking out in support of gay marriage.
â??Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level,â?? wrote Kluwe in a tongue-in-cheek letter that was published by Deadspin in September of 2012.
After the letter went viral, Kluwe says things began to change within the Vikings organization.
â??My special teams coach [Mike Priefer] started making homophobic comments in my presence,â?? Kluwe said in an exclusive interview today. Kluwe claims that then-head coach Leslie Frazier asked him to stop speaking out on marriage equality. When Kluwe refused he says his head coach told him that he, â??couldnâ??t be held responsible for what happens.â??
Though Vikings owner Zygi Wilf expressed his support of Kluweâ??s activism, the punter says Prieferâ??s harassment continued through the 2012 season. When Kluwe was cut at the end of the season, the outspoken UCLA grad couldnâ??t help but suspect the decision was not performance-based.
"I realized [that] I shouldn't have been released from the team because my stats were the same as they always had been. I was doing everything the team asked me to do. But suddenly I'm unfit to punt for the Vikings. It especially doesn't make sense that they use a fifth round [draft] pick on a punter when they clearly had positions of need elsewhere,â?? said Kluwe. â??The only thing that changed is that I started speaking out in support of gay rights and now I don't have a job a year later."
Kluwe believes his advocacy for gay rights ultimately cost him his job, but he has hope that Samâ??s NFL experience will be different.
"I can remember when I came in and there were eight, nine-year vets that would use homophobic slurs in the locker room,â?? recalled Kluwe, who joined the league in 2005. â??There is still some of that now but it's much less prevalent in the locker room. You see that societal shift happening almost in real time because you have that age bracket constantly cycling through. You're not stuck in that one generation."
With the average NFL career lasting about three and a half years, the league tends to skew young and turnover rates on NFL rosters are high. Kluwe sees that as a good thing for culture change within the league.
And though speaking out on a social issue may have ultimately cut his NFL career short, Kluwe says he has no regrets.
â??Would I have liked to play longer? Of course. But itâ??s far more important to speak out on human rights issues than to be silent and essentially play a childrenâ??s game.â??