When Chris Kluwe began working for same-sex marriage in Minnesota—and then wrote a powerful letter in support of the same issue in Maryland—the reason was simple: It was the right thing to do.
Kluwe was a professional football player. And although not many athletes are outspoken on issues like LGBT rights, Kluwe found surprising support among his teammates. The stereotype of pro athletes as conservative, insensitive brutes is wrong, the former Minnesota Viking kicker claims.
Kluwe’s first project for Minnesotans for Marriage Equality—helping defeat a 2012 anti-gay marriage ballot initiative—raised a few eyebrows in the NFL. But it was his strongly worded letter to a Maryland legislator—who had chastised Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo for his support of same-sex marriage—that went viral and unleashed twin debates over where pro athletes stood on the question, and if they should weigh in on either side of it.
“Athletes are role models. We have an obligation to speak out,” Kluwe said. He admits that although it's been “unusual lately” for athletes to talk about social issues, that was not always the case. In 1966, Muhammad Ali had refused induction into the U.S. Army, saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” He was arrested for draft evasion, and although he never served his five-year jail sentence, he lost several prime years of his boxing career. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction. After eight seasons with the Vikings, Kluwe was cut last spring. He believes he was released because of his activism.
But Kluwe makes a distinction between the team’s coaches and front office, and his teammates. Sixty percent of the players “supported everything I said” about gay marriage, said Kluwe. The NFL is filled with smart athletes, but, Kluwe adds, the league is “so corporatized,” athletes risk losing their jobs if they speak out. With limited years for their careers, not many pros are willing to take that risk.
But Kluwe was. Fortunately, he said, feedback from fans was positive. There was some hate mail, but not much. Perhaps even more important was what he heard from gay men and lesbians, not necessarily football fans, and LGBT youth. Many people told Kluwe that his words and actions affected them directly. That’s been very encouraging, he said. At the same time, it’s also “depressing.” He wonders, “What does that say about our country that something I do, as simple as speaking out, will save lives? What kind of world do we live in where an athlete who speaks out is keeping kids from killing themselves?”
Kluwe is no longer an active player. But he is actvely speaking at schools and to social action groups. Over the past year, Kluwe said he has learned several things. He learned that social issues are indeed very important, and that it is worth risking his career to speak up about them. He learned the depth of importance of same-sex marriage to the LGBT community.
Are gay issues important to the NFL? Kluwe is not sure. “It’s a business that probably recognizes it has to change with the times. They may not know completely how to do it, but they’re getting there.”
So what’s ahead? Kluwe promised to “keep pushing for marriage equality until all states have it.”