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A Conversation With Chris Kluwe

A Conversation With Chris Kluwe, the Outspoken Former NFL Punter Whose Mouth Got Him Blackballed From Pro Football

It’s been four years since former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe was unceremoniously released from the team and subsequently blackballed by the rest of the NFL. Yet his firing seems more relevant today than ever.

Kluwe believes his dismissal was due to his outspoken support for gay rights. The activism unsettled Kluwe’s head coach Leslie Frazier — NFL coaches aren’t big on “distractions” — and incurred the wrath of special teams coach Mike Priefer, who Kluwe claims made a point of making homophobic slurs around him. And while the Vikings said they released Kluwe for diminishing performance, he was eventually awarded a settlement from the team in a wrongful termination case. The money was donated to LGBT charities.

A debate over queer rights seems downright quaint relative to the NFL’s current litany of issues, which range from the addressable (the dreadful state of the quarterback position around the league), to the criminal (how to handle players suspected of domestic violence), to the political (players kneeling during the National Anthem) to the existential (concussions). But the controversy Kluwe courted speaks to our larger political moment, and the debate over what constitutes free speech — namely, whether it applies in the workplace and what role (if any) employers should play in policing it.

For the return of the MEL Conversation, MEL’s long-form interview podcast, we talked to Kluwe about all of topics listed above and others — including Nazis and free speech; Colin Kaepernick and being blackballed from the NFL; and life as a former NFL player turned stay-at-home father of two.

Below is the link to the MEL Conversation on SoundCloud — you can listen to it on iTunes here — as well as a full-length transcript of our discussion (which has been edited for length clarity).

What did you think about the Google guy who got fired for his anti-diversity outburst? While your politics couldn’t be more different, you were essentially let go for the same reasons — expressing political beliefs your employer disagreed with, or wanted you to keep to yourself. For the Google guy’s part at least, he and his supporters have turned his dismissal into a free speech debate.
Isn’t it funny how so many people who have views that are identical to the Nazi ethos are concerned about free speech and being able to share their views? You look at what he wrote, and it’s very much the mindset of someone who doesn’t care to think about other people — who doesn’t understand the structural problems other people face due to the fact that they’ve never had to face those problems.

That’s a huge issue in our country. We still have systemic racism and gender inequality. Income inequality is huge as well. Until we start addressing those things, the same shit is going to keep happening over and over again.

So yeah, I see that kind of manifesto, and I’m like, “You are such a sheltered, naive person, unwilling to look at the world through another person’s pair of eyes.” I mean, spend a year living in the Deep South as an African-American person. Then tell me there’s no racism in this country.

So you don’t relate at all?
That’s the thing: I wasn’t upset that the Vikings fired me. It was the reason they gave. My stats had been exactly the same throughout my entire eight-year career. I was doing everything the team wanted me to do. If anything, I understood that they could fire me because of my political stance. You can do that. It’s allowed. You’re not the government; you don’t have to abide by the First Amendment. But you don’t get to play it off as if it was somehow my production as a player that was the reason why. It’s very clear what the reason was, and I’m going to make sure that people know that. Because I don’t think that’s okay. If you fire someone for standing up for human rights, you should have to bear the consequences of taking that stance and making that your action.

In other words, it was the hypocrisy that bothered you?
Definitely. If they’d said they were firing me because of my political stance, I would’ve been like, “Okay, that sucks, but what am I going to do about it? That’s your choice as a private organization to do that.” But when they said they were firing me because I’m no longer good enough to play pro football, that doesn’t make any sense. I was still the same punter I was the previous year, and my stats were still the same as they’d been the seven years before that. I’m not going to claim I was the best punter in the league, but I was generally in the top five or 10. So it wasn’t like I was hovering at the bottom of the pack.

I ended up suing them for wrongful termination, and they ultimately had to settle and donate a bunch of money to LGBTQ charities.

All of this, though, does speak to the larger free speech debate. I’m in no way defending what the Google guy said. Whenever you’re trafficking in the idea that there’s a biological basis for an entire group’s inferiority, that’s the most reprehensible form of bigotry. However, I think it’s a slippery slope to fire someone like that, because it sets a precedent where someone who wants to be on the right side of history, like you, also gets fired.
Well, I’d say, mine happened before his, so we’re already on that slope.

True. But you understand what I mean.
I get your point entirely. But I think what it indicates is the failure of late-stage capitalism. In that, right now, we value money more than we value human beings and human rights. If you’ve brought negative attention to a company — it doesn’t matter what you’ve said — you’ve potentially cost them profits. Therefore, they’re going to get rid of you.

That’s how you get these dystopian futures — stuff like Peter Thiel draining blood from other people to try to keep himself young. Like, how is that not a dystopian future? Essentially, we’re putting the social construct of money above being empathetic and taking care of each other. And eventually, that kind of society is going to collapse.

Civilization throughout history has a 100 percent failure rate. There’s never been a civilization that’s lasted longer than 1,000 years or so. And right now, we’re in the stage where we’re like, “Okay, we’re starting to hit that downward slope that pretty much every civilization goes through.” The question is, do we recognize it and try to change things? Or do we just keep going down that slope and do what every civilization before us has done — end?

Do you think “late-stage capitalism” is the same reason why Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been signed?
Absolutely. Because the thing is, I essentially got blacklisted from the NFL as well. Punters can play like 18 or 19 years; I was on my eighth year. I was thinking before all this happened that I was going to play for at least another four or five years. Because my legs and body felt fine.

That said, it’s not as though NFL owners get together in some sort of secret lair and say, “Haha, we’ll never sign this guy again. We’re all agreed on this. Motion to adjourn.” No, each one of them makes the individual decision that they’d rather keep the potential tickets sales from fans that might otherwise leave if they signed someone like me or Kaepernick.

So they’re just scared?
Totally. What was the Michael Jordan statement? “Republicans buy shoes, too.” It’s the idea that you put money over human beings and human rights. Because let’s be honest: What Kaepernick is protesting is a very real problem in our country. Police brutality affects African-American people way more than any other group.

How do you identify politically?
I’m a gleeful anarchist. I’d rather burn it all down so that everyone takes care of themselves. But I also know that due to human nature, that’s never going to work. So I’d put myself probably more on the left end of the spectrum. People should be free to live their own lives without interference from others. But the instant you start ruining someone else’s life, you need to be stopped and told that’s not okay.

I actually thought you’d identify more as a socialist.
My problems with socialism are the same problems I have with capitalism, in that human nature breaks everything. People are inherently broken. And just as full communism failed in China and the Soviet Union, full capitalism is also on its way to failing. Because, again, it’s placing money above the idea of human beings. Socialism puts the community above individual human beings. All of a sudden, though, that allows you to do whatever you want in the name of the greater good, which generally turns out not to be for the greater good, but for the greater good of the people who pull the levers of power.

So you’re Left, but just shy of outright socialism.
Yep. I’d love outright socialism. If we ever develop an incorruptible artificial intelligence that could take care of all of us, that would be ideal. Kind of like Iain Banks’ science-fiction novels. They essentially have these Godlike AIs. If you want to do something that doesn’t hurt someone else, they have no problem with it. But if you do something that does hurt someone else, they’re going to make sure you don’t do it again by rehabilitating you and teaching you why it was a bad thing.

When you started to speak out politically, what did your teammates think?
That’s the interesting thing: I had probably 60 percent to 70 percent of the locker room come up to me to talk to me about it. Forty percent of them were like, “We may not agree with your views on same-sex marriage, but we think it was great that you said it because of free speech. People need to be able to speak out on stuff.” The other 60 percent were like, “We agree with you 100 percent — both in terms of LGBTQ rights and speaking out. Keep it up.”

The thing a lot of people don’t realize is that you can see societal shifts happening almost in real time via NFL players. That’s because the NFL has this constant churn of older guys going out of the league and younger guys coming in from college. The breakdown on same-sex rights closely mirrored what the polling views were at the time, which was about 60 percent in favor of and 40 percent opposed. I anticipate that as times goes on, that gap is going to continue to widen. Because kids growing up today know they have a gay family member, teammate or friend. So to them, it’s not a big deal; it’s just who that person is. They’re like, “If my friend likes playing football, and I like playing football, why can’t we both play football?”

Does that mean homophobia in football is way overblown?
Here’s the thing: There are definitely players who have issues with it, just like people in society have issues with it. The locker room as a whole, though, reflects society more accurately than the coaching staff and owners. Because the coaches and owners tend to be older white men who grew up in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. So their views are entrenched. Until those people start cycling out, football is going to keep having the same problems, because why would those people change their views?

So there’s no truth to the popular perception that the locker room is a very homophobic place?
No, there’s absolutely [homophobia in football].

But it’s changing?
It definitely is. That’s the thing: A football locker room is an accurate reflection of society at large, because players are drawn from all over the country and are from all different types of social backgrounds, economic backgrounds, religious backgrounds and racial backgrounds. You’re going to have knuckle-draggers in there; you’re going to have smart people in there; you’re going to have average people in there. You’re going to have all these different types of people who are also in society itself.

So yeah, there are players in the NFL who absolutely will not agree on same-sex rights and who who will not agree on Colin Kaepernick’s protest. They’ll say, “This is terrible. Why are black people speaking out on this? I’ve never experienced anything like that.” On the flip side, you’ll have guys who will say, “This is wrong. We should be fighting for other people’s rights. We should be talking about this stuff.”

To that latter group — if 60 percent of other players share your politics and views, why do you think more of them don’t speak out, too?
Look what happened to me. Look what happened to Kaepernick. We lost our jobs.

It’s the same reason the NFL has such problems when it comes to the collective bargaining agreement. There are so many guys in the league, and it’s much easier to just say, “I don’t want to rock the boat. I’ll keep taking my paycheck, and I’ll play out the limited years that I have. Then when I’m done, I can speak out about this stuff.”

If you look at it from the self-preservation angle, it’s not a bad argument. The average lifespan of an NFL player is around three years. If you know you’re only going to get three years to make your money, it’s hard to risk that. Because there’s no other job like it in the world. You can’t go down the street and say, “I’m here to apply for the NFL job.” It doesn’t exist.

The crazy thing is that if all the players did come together and speak out, the owners wouldn’t be able to do anything. They can’t fire half the team for their political views. If they do that, even the densest fan is going to realize, Maybe something’s going on here. Maybe these owners are shitheads, and we should stop watching football.

One of your teammates was Adrian Peterson. I’m going to go out on a limb and say you probably had different views on parenting than him. How do you reconcile being a teammate with someone who you fundamentally disagree with?
It’s hard because in Adrian’s specific situation, him growing up where he did, he was never taught to be different. He was never taught that [disciplining his child with a switch] was a bad thing. Kids learn what you teach them. I’m learning that with my kids now. Whatever you teach them, they’re going to absorb it — and that’s how they’re going to proceed with their mental framework. So if you teach a kid that beating kids is okay and a form of discipline and what everyone does, that’s what they’re going to do, too. How would they know any different? If no one has ever told them or explained why it’s wrong, they really don’t have a chance.

The thing that matters is that when you’re told your behavior is wrong and you have a chance to change it, do you actually change it? Do you take responsibility and say, “I was wrong before but I can better in the future”? Because when I grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I used homophobic slurs all the time. That was just part of society at the time. You’d call your friends “gay”; you’d say, “Don’t be such a fag.” But as I grew older, I was like, “Wait a minute! This isn’t right. This isn’t what I should be doing. This is negatively harming someone else. I wouldn’t be okay with someone doing it to me, so I’m going to make the conscious decision not to do say these things anymore.”

I would hope everyone else is able to do the same thing. Where you can look at yourself and say, “I was wrong.” In other words, it’s okay to be wrong; just don’t be wrong again in the future.

Do all players then deserve a second chance?
Yeah, I think everyone deserves a second chance.

Even Ray Rice and Ezekiel Elliott?
It’s one of those things that if you’re willing to change and work at changing, you deserve a second chance. You can’t, though, do it as a PR move. You can’t do it because you think that’s what other people want to hear, and then go back to your old ways. Also: I believe in second chances, but I don’t believe in third chances. You get a chance to change, but it’s on you to want to change. If you can’t change or are unwilling to change, you’ve made a choice. And there should be consequences for that choice.

Another popular perception around the NFL that seems to be changing is around toughness. Here, I’m thinking about someone like Chris Borland, who was willing to step out and say, “I’m not going to buy into this philosophy that I need to destroy myself to prove myself.”
A big part of that is due to the research that’s coming out on how devastating football can be to your brain, and how it’s driving guys to kill themselves. When I first came into the league in 2005, no one had any idea what CTE was. Obviously hitting your heads together probably wasn’t that great and neither were concussions, but there was no public evidence that either could lead to long-term brain damage

As players, we were just like, “Okay, well, we’re going to go out and play.” You have to have the mentality that you’re going to get through anything. If you don’t, the team is going to cut you. That’s part of the reason why a lot of football players feel like they have to tough through the pain. Now, though, we’re starting to understand that maybe it isn’t great that we’re forcing long-term traumatic brain damage on guys for our entertainment. It’s essentially Roman gladiatorial combat, except instead of lions and Christians slaughtering each other, it’s the Detroit Lions getting slaughtered on Sundays.

Are you suggesting that people shouldn’t watch?
Not necessarily. But I do think football in its current incarnation is doomed. There’s no way football is going to remain the same as it is now long-term, because too many people are going to turn away from the game.

Yet it’s remained incredibly popular in spite of all this new research and information.
Back in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, boxing was among the premier American sports. People still watch it now, but it’s a sideshow. The greatest thing boxing is going to have is a pure spectacle like the McGregor-Mayweather fight. That wasn’t a boxing match, that was, “Come look at us, and throw money at us.” It was more akin to professional wrestling.

The NFL thinks it’s immune to this kind of thing. But we see it in the pee-wee enrollment — it’s been going down by 20 percent each year. And we see it in the stories of high schools shuttering their football programs because not enough kids are signing up. As parents learn that there’s a legitimate cost to this game, they start thinking, Why am I going to have my kid play football? There are all these other sports that they can play — soccer, baseball, basketball, etc.

In 20 years, the U.S. soccer team is probably going to be really, really good. Because it’s going to be filled with kids who would’ve otherwise played football, giving you a much larger talent pool to draw from. That’s what football relies on — a giant talent pool to have these amazing players. But if these amazing players turn to other sports, football’s will dry up.

What are you doing to ensure that you don’t end up broke like so many other former players?
The mindset I had going into my NFL career was that I’m very fortunate to have had this opportunity — and it’s probably not going to last super long. So if I’m making $8 million over eight years and about half of that goes to taxes, I need to prorate $4 million over about 45 years.

That’s a good solid income, but it’s not like you’re buying a Bugatti every year and dropping $10,000 a night at the club. That’s how guys go broke so quickly: They don’t understand that when you’re done with football — and you’re probably going to be done sooner than you think — the money you made has to last the rest of your life. Having “football player” as a skill set is really only good if you’re a football player or a bouncer. There aren’t any other jobs out there where the requirement is to hit people really hard.

I don’t get why so many NFL players don’t understand that.
The reason is because society at large doesn’t teach financial literacy. We don’t make it an emphasis in grade school, high school or college to learn why taking out a loan at large interest rates over five years is a bad idea. Or why borrowing credit when you can’t afford to pay it back right away is a bad idea.

Again, if kids are never taught something, how are they supposed to learn it? Knowledge doesn’t magically appear in your head—you have to discover it from somewhere else. And right now, financial literacy isn’t something that’s taught to people in our society.

I don’t want to go full conspiracy theorist and say that the Illuminati are making sure to keep us down. But if you look at the people who hold the levers of power, they make a lot of money by keeping people stupid and having people borrow money when they shouldn’t. And if they can keep that cycle going, they’re the ones who are going to be making a ton of money; everyone else will be stuck in the gutter.

Don’t people bear a personal responsibility to teach themselves, though? There’s a ton of personal finance information readily available on the internet.
Correct. But if you don’t know where to look on the internet, how do you know that it exists? How do you know which one is right? How do you know what’s a scam and what’s legitimate financial information?

Fair enough. I’d just think that someone in the NFL would go through the steps necessary to ensure that their money is taken care of, and that it can take care of them for pretty much the rest of their lives.
I will say that it’s less excusable for NFL players, because the NFL does make resources available to guys. They make it a point of saying that you should have a financial adviser who you can trust, and who isn’t a family member. They tell you to put your money away and save it. They make it very clear. Every single year, we had a presentation on not wasting all of our money, and telling us that we need our money to last.

From that perspective, yes, NFL players have a much higher chance of saving their money because they’ve been exposed to that information. Unfortunately, a lot of guys don’t understand why it’s important and brush it off.

You score pretty high on the nerd-athlete matrix.
I’m the Kwisatz Haderach, the chosen one — Dune fans out there will get that reference.

You must have been like that growing up, too.
Totally. If it was left up to me, I would’ve stayed inside and played video games and board games and read sci-fi. I’m a huge nerd at heart. I just also happen to be really good at sports. And my parents had a rule: If it was light outside, you had to be outside doing something. So I’d run around with my friends, playing baseball or soccer. Then, once the sun went down, I’d go inside and do my homework or whatever.

So you reluctantly became a world-class athlete?
Yes, reluctantly — #firstworldproblems.

How did you reconcile the fact that you wanted to be an indoor kid but your parents forced you to be an outdoor kid?
That’s one of the things I’m glad to see start breaking down: the jock dichotomy. People seem to be realizing that you can be both a nerd and good at sports. For me, growing up, that wasn’t necessarily the case. But I have a very fuck-you attitude, where I’m like, I want to do these things. I’m going to do them well, and I don’t care what you think about me.

Were the jocks like, “Get out of here, nerd”?
I got that occasionally. I had these thick Coke-bottle glasses as a kid, and I’d be reading books on the way to football games on the team bus. Because I was bored! I needed something to do during the bus ride.

Were you always a punter?
Always. I separated the growth plate in my shoulder playing baseball. So I couldn’t be involved in any contact during my first year of high school football. Then, my sophomore year, I tore my ACL during my first-ever tackling drill. I took that as a sign that maybe I shouldn’t be tackling — or be tackled — and that I should stick with kicking and punting.

How did the geeky side react? Did they embrace the fact that you were a jock?
Some people didn’t. They were like, “You’re the sports guy. You can’t be a true nerd. You don’t know the lingo. You haven’t gone through all the stuff.” But my attitude was, “Bullshit! I’ve read all the books and played all the games.”

This is another thing that gets me riled up. I hate the idea of gatekeeping for hobbies. Where it’s like, “You can’t be a true fan unless you’ve met this specific list of criteria.” Get over yourself. Anyone can be a fan of something. You don’t have to have achieved 13 steps of being a gamer in order to enjoy video games. Nor do you need to know a team’s stats from 1912 in order to be a sports fan. Enjoy your hobbies the way you want to enjoy them.

Hopefully by being who I am and by talking about this stuff, I can help that change. Because I want to show people that I’ve been a part of both worlds: I’ve been in the NFL; I’ve created my own tabletop card game; and I’ve written science-fiction books.

Now you’re making your geek culture hobbies into a career.
Yeah. Pursue what you want to pursue and be the best at it. That’s entirely up to you. Don’t let other people tell you that you can’t do it. That’s so important. I mean, look at the problems that women face in terms of both the video-game field and the tech field in general. There’s this idea that if you’re a girl, you don’t belong in this space. Bullshit — if you can code and create things, you have absolutely every right to be there. You have just as much right to be there as a guy does, and you should be paid the same and treated the same. Fuck gatekeeping. Get that out of here. Let people pursue their hobbies how they want to pursue them.

What you’re talking about is predominantly how life on the internet works. It’s so polarizing and siloed. I think everyone had this grand vision that the internet was going to break down all these walls and that everyone would participate in conversations in a democratic way.
This is a huge problem that I have with Silicon Valley right now. People seem to have this idea that just because there’s a new technology, it’s going to magically fix things. Historically, that’s never been the case. No matter what the technology has been, human nature remains human nature.

Sure, but it improves things. I’d argue that the printing press improved access to information.
Right, but it also improved access to false information. It improved access to information that convinced people to kill other people for wrong reasons. Technology by itself is neutral. It’s what people do with technology that matters. We’re seeing a huge problem with that right now with social media. There was this idea that because the internet was this free, open thing, people were going to work together to usher in an age of harmony and that everything would be fine. That we didn’t need to put restrictions on posting Nazi hate speech. That we didn’t need to worry about bots manipulating the outcomes of elections. That we didn’t need to account for things like harassment and cyberbullying.

How do you reconcile that with your enjoyment from social media? Much of your fame emanated from that.
I’m a troll at heart. I love fucking with people. I try to use my powers for good. I try to find people that are making other people’s lives miserable, and be like, “I’m going to bring back to you what you’re putting out on others.”

I mean, I grew up on the internet; I understand its dark corners and how people interact there. I’ve been on 4chan and other web forums. So none of this stuff is new to me. It’s why I keep trying to point out that there are serious issues with [how we behave online]. Like back when Gamergate was a thing. I wrote this open letter telling [Gamergate proponents] to knock it the fuck off because they were ruining gaming. Gamers had just reached the point where we were socially accepted, and [Gamergate proponents] were trying to drag us back to the days of the stereotype of being a sweaty nerd in our mothers’ basements.

Yet, to your point about corporate cynicism and fear, all the gaming companies sided with the Gamergate community.
Again, back to the problem of late-stage capitalism: These companies think that they can’t afford to alienate this audience because it won’t buy their games anymore. My feeling is, if these are the people you’re making games for, you’re making a bad business decision.

I also pointed out at the time that this was just a test run. I wrote that we have an election coming up and that there are people who are watching this. And that they’re going to take what they’ve learned and use it. Lo and behold, we have Trump and all the Pepes for Trump and the 4chan Pepes. All of that was spawned during Gamergate.

Let’s change topics completely: Did you ever anticipate that you’d be a stay-at-home dad?
I knew I was going to be someday. Because my wife and I agreed that when I was done playing football, she would get a chance to pursue her career. I felt like that was only fair. I got my chance to do the stuff I wanted to do, and now, she gets her chance as a social worker helping at-risk kids. At first, I had to adjust to the idea that I was the one at home. But after a while, I found that I actually enjoyed it. I like making meals and looking at new recipes. I like teaching the kids — we have 9-year-old and 7-year-old daughters — about the stuff that they’re learning.

Some days, I feel like I don’t want to do it anymore. I think any parent faces that feeling, though — where the kids are overwhelming and you want a break. But you get through it, and you move on.

What’s your parenting style?
If they ask me questions, I’ll answer them. Generally, they won’t understand, but at some point, they will. I feel strongly that kids are smarter than people give them credit for, and they’ll learn what you teach them.So if they ask me questions about why the sun is so bright, I’ll get into the idea of nuclear fusion.

You talk to your daughters about nuclear fusion?
Definitely, because if I have the opportunity to give them this information, it’s a chance for them to learn it. They may not comprehend all of it, but they will understand parts of it and that might spawn them to want to learn more about it.

So they’re going to be just as dorky as you.
Most likely. But it also goes to sports. If they’re doing a drill at soccer practice, I’ll explain to them why they’re doing that drill. If you’re going to do something, you should do it right. And the only way you can do it right is if someone teaches you the right way to do it.

How do you restrict their screen time and make sure they have good balance?
My wife and I are on the same page with them doing sports. They’re in soccer now. Once that’s done, they’ll probably do basketball or volleyball. We want them to experience a bunch of different sports so that if they find one they like, we can have them focus on that. Too often, kids are forced into a professional path from when they’re like 5 or 6. And it’s like, “No, odds are 99.9 percent of the kids playing on this field probably won’t even play at the collegiate level. Instead, let them enjoy the game.”

How has having daughters changed your point of view?
It makes me a lot more cognizant of the fact that there are a lot of things on the internet that they won’t understand if they were to see them right now.

Do you think that would be different if you had sons?
No, but I think the problem is that on the internet, it’s more welcoming if you’re perceived to be a man. Because that’s just how the gender breakdown works. If you’re a girl on the internet, you face so much more abuse than a man does.

Do you want to have a son?
Not really. I just wanted to have two kids. Because once you move from man coverage to zone coverage as a parent, it becomes way harder. It’s a lot easier when each parent can take a kid.

Who was your male role model growing up?
I didn’t really have one. I’ve always tried to be my own role model.

Not even your dad or a coach?
If I see someone who does something really well, I want to be better at it than them. So it’s always been, how can I make myself be better than everyone else?

You were a very mature child.
I’d say a very selfish one.