NFL star Kluwe is usually on the sidelines but always at heart of issues
On the eve of Super Bowl XLVII, Sportsbeat's Chris Bailey meets one of the NFL's most outspoken players, Chris Kluwe
A punter’s success in the National Football League is judged by how little attention he draws. Tasked to kick the ball as far and as high as one leg can muster, it is neither a glamorous job nor a respected one – if he does not slink into the background, it is because something has gone horrifically wrong.
That is why Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings is a rare breed. Last September, a scathing riposte to Maryland legislator Emmett Burns – who had criticised Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brandon Ayanbadejo for his outspoken support of gay marriage – placed him at the crux of the national debate.
During 2011’s NFL lockout, he chastised some of the sport’s more celebrated stars for holding up negotiations to the detriment of many.
Recently embroiled in an effort to recognise punters in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the only slinking Kluwe does is to the forefront.
It has been an unconventional journey for an unconventional sports star.
Initially a soccer player in his youth, he did not fall in love with Britain’s game – despite a brief flirtation with Arsenal, instigated by his Premier League-watching father.
He did, however, find he had enough oomph in his leg to become elite in one of American Football’s few positions in which foot deliberately connects with ball.
Most would be content to lose themselves in the perks sports stardom inevitably brings. Kluwe does not count himself as one of them.
His profession, which he jokes is “about 99 per cent boredom mixed with one percent of sheer unadulterated terror,” is not his only passion.
An avid video gamer, he prefers playing to watching. So too does he resist spectating from the sidelines when campaigning for gay rights.
“Your job does not define who you are as a person,” he says.
“I enjoy playing football but at the end of the day I am Chris Kluwe the human being – I’m not Chris Kluwe, punter for the Vikings.
“Sports are great and it gives you a platform, but you can’t just be defined as a sports figure because then you don’t have balance and all of the other parts of what makes a person a person.
“Whether you regard it rightly or wrongly, sports figures tend to be held in a higher celebrity status than normal people and that’s the way society is.
“And, as sports figures, I think we should use that platform to do the right thing, not to be “hey, look at all the cool stuff I have or look at the clubs I’m hanging out in,” but to use our position to hopefully affect some sort of meaningful social change.
“The aim is to treat each other better than we were before. Hopefully others will look at my example and think “hey, this is a guy who stood up for what he believed in and hopefully it’ll make a difference.””
If not made a difference, Kluwe has certainly created a stir. Civil partnerships are illegal in most American states and national media outlets have clamoured for his opinion ever since his articulately venomous retort of Burns.
He credits his voracious reading and fiery exchanges on video game forums as having primed him for verbal battle; or, as he puts it, ‘combining inventive swearing with carefully thought-out logical arguments.’
And his letter to Burns – in which he denies homosexuals are ‘lustful cockmonsters’, among many other lucid observations – was never going to be half-baked.
“It was funny as I had a phone conversation with my wife the day before because I had written a couple things for (sports website) Deadspin and decided to do it. She said, “you think you could tone it down a bit? I’m worried the team might not take this the right way,” and I promised I would try to but then I came out with that,” he laughs.
“I always figured I was going to speak my mind, I’m going to be who I am and generally I’m not speaking out on something unless I feel the tension needs to be cultivated because someone is not treating someone else equally.”
It is not easy to stand on the soapbox in a sport akin to a gladiatorial arena. The NFL is adrenaline-pumped, rough-and-tumble, in direct conflict with the egregious stereotyping of homosexual men.
But scour the globe and you will be hard-pressed to find openly gay athletes. It is just not the done thing. For Kluwe, however, a future without fear of ridicule and reprisal is within reach.
“It’s getting to the point where you see each younger generation entering sports do not have that same level of prejudice,” he insists.
“These kids have been raised to believe that it’s okay to let other people live their life. Gradually we’ll be able to see that one of these players will be comfortable enough in both their own sexuality and their own ability.”
Sport may be about to bloom in other ways, too. The advent of Twitter opens a direct line between a paying public and their heroes, and Kluwe, unsurprisingly, is one who adds a slice of humanity to the mythos which surrounds some stars’ sheltered lifestyle.
At time of writing he is tweeting about government policy, watching BBC TV series Sherlock, and teaching his daughter how to play Super Mario World. Though having a relatively meagre 155,000 followers – for reference, Rio Ferdinand commands 3.75 million – Kluwe acknowledges social media as a bridge which, through caution, can open up greater levels of mutual respect.
“Some guys are private, they just don’t want to share who they are and they want to keep to themselves, but the whole reason sports are as popular and as lucrative as they are is because so many fans enjoy watching them,” he adds.
“I think once more athletes realise that social media is this great platform to interact with fans they’ll start doing it more, but a lot of players aren’t familiar with how to behave properly on social media.
“You see the stories all the time about guys who end up tweeting things they try and delete right away but you can’t because it’s the internet and just not realising what you put out there is out there permanently.
“But as more awareness grows in time, you’ll see a lot more interaction with fans over social media and in turn that will help grow the respective sports.”
A platform that breaks through the cloaks of agents and advisers could herald an exciting new era for sport.
Until it is fully realised, renegades like Kluwe add a little colour to an industry both full of and surrounded by cynics.