NFL Punter Is Prying Open America's Last Closet: Pro Sports
Walking across the Macalester College campus, Chris Kluwe passes unnoticed. As usual, the 30-year-old Vikings punter is dressed down: a pair of brown flip-flops, black basketball shorts, and a baggy zip-up sweatshirt. A backward World of Warcraft hat pins back his shaggy brown surfer haircut, a giveaway to the Southern California boy's roots on this cool autumn afternoon in Minnesota.
Kluwe climbs a staircase to the second floor of a glass building, where an LGBT group called "No H8" — an offshoot of the campaign against California's Proposition 8 — holds a promotional photo shoot. No one is expecting him.
"Are you here to have your picture taken?" a woman asks as Kluwe approaches the check-in.
He nods modestly. "I'm Chris Kluwe, by the way."
"Oh, Chris Warcraft!" she swoons, calling him by his well-followed Twitter handle. "I could fall over!"
Kluwe demures bashfully, somewhere between cool and uncomfortable.
Two young photographers whisk him away to a white backdrop and toss him a plain V-neck. Kluwe peels off his sweatshirt and an anime T-shirt, exposing his muscular torso, the product of a workout he calls "Operation Adrian Abs" after the Vikings running back. The photographers stamp his cheek with a "No H8" logo, slap a strip of duct tape over his mouth, and begin posing him: Cross your arms. Now hold them out like this.
As word of Kluwe's identity spreads, the shoot becomes a spectacle. A dozen students gawk, whispering to each other and snapping pictures with their camera phones. By the time Kluwe changes back into his own clothes, a line of more than 30 onlookers has formed behind him.
"More pictures?" he says, and poses with every one of them, including the two photographers working the event.
"Thank you for what you're doing," one says, as Kluwe heads for the door. "It means so much to so many people."
Though homophobia is far from extinct, the tide of public opinion seems to pull inexorably against bigotry. Last year, Congress repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military. Following a string of highly publicized suicides, schools across the country finally got the message and began taking an aggressive stance against gay bullying.
Yet in 2012, none of the four major American sports have ever seen an active, openly gay player. This is why major-league sports are often regarded as America's last closet.
"During the times when I played, if I would have came out, I felt like I would have been hurt," says Esera Tuaolo, a former Vikings player who came out publicly in 2002, after retiring a few years earlier. "You talk about bounties in New Orleans. How much do you think it would cost to take the gay guy out? To take the fag out?"
But in Minnesota's near-deadlocked vote to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe has emerged as the unlikely spokesman for Vote No.
"He's going to save it for us, I swear it to you," says Tracy Call, founder of Minnesotans for Equality. "And it's going to be him alone."
Having no background in politics, Kluwe sneaked into the fight through the back door after writing a passionate and colorfully vulgar letter laying out his support of gay marriage, in the process telling a Maryland legislator that gays getting married wouldn't transform him into a "lustful cock monster." The letter blew up on Deadspin with millions of views and hurled Kluwe into the national spotlight as football's most aggressive straight ally to the gay rights movement.
"I teared up," says Tuaolo. "For me, it was like Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech."
In early October, Kluwe's celebrity in the gay community crystallized when he appeared shirtless in a provocative cover story for Out Magazine, which heralded Kluwe as the "unlikely face of marriage equality." The Maryland Legislature recently awarded him an official citation for his "work in standing up for the equality of all." And the New York Times even flew a reporter out to Minnesota to profile Kluwe.
Beyond the gay marriage debate, Kluwe's defense of same-sex rights is further evidence that the culture in major-league sports is finally changing, says Dan Woog, author of Jocks: True Stories of America's Gay Male Athletes.
"For a long time, I equated sports and the military as sort of the two last bastions where it was okay to be anti-gay," says Woog. "The military is now doing fine with the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and I think sports is headed there."
On a Tuesday afternoon, Kluwe is in a place no punter wants to be: a wheelchair. As he shovels chips and salsa into his mouth, Tiffiny Carlson, a bubbly blond quadriplegic woman across the table, wants to know what he'd do if football was no longer an option.
"Open a table-top miniature store in Southern California," he answers without hesitation.
"Really?" she asks, tickled. "I never thought you'd be into that!"
"I'm a huge nerd," he concedes, paying no regard to the boom mic hovering above or the two cameramen circling like vultures.
Kluwe has agreed to be the centerpiece of a documentary on spinal cord injuries, which will be used to lobby for a state law adding a surcharge to driving violations to fund curative research. His day began at 10 a.m., climbing into a wheelchair from bed, then rolling to the Courage Center for weightlifting, followed by a trip to a specialty-care children's hospital.
Now he's sitting with a group of young men and women who also are in wheelchairs, but not by choice. Inevitably, the conversation turns to the topic of the gay marriage amendment.
"It's the same as discrimination," says Kluwe.
"I know it is!" the young woman concurs.
"Fifty years from now, our kids will be like, 'Why did we care about that?'" predicts Kluwe, a sci-fi aficionado. "'We gotta discriminate against the robots!'"
A punter's chances of actually sustaining the type of injury that would permanently confine him to a wheelchair are slim. But it's an illuminating exercise for a guy whose entire life has revolved around the excellence of his lower limbs.
The son of a doctor and a chemical engineer, Kluwe grew up in the affluent Southern California town of Seal Beach. Even as a kid, Kluwe excelled at sports — both as a baseball pitcher and a soccer goalie — and spent much of his adolescence trying to decide which one he'd rather go pro in.
"The kids didn't play football, because they were soccer and baseball players," says his mother, Sandy. "Why would you play football? I didn't think he knew the rules of the game, to be honest."
But the fall semester of Kluwe's freshman year at Los Alamitos high school, he decided to go out for football. A decade of pitching in baseball had caused an abnormal separation in the growth plate of his shoulder, so on the advice of an orthopedist, Kluwe tried out to be a kicker.
With a little practice, Kluwe's soccer-ball kicking skills translated well to booting the football. He attended a kicking camp the following summer, where the owners advised him that he could have a future in the sport.
"They told me that if I worked at it, I could pretty much almost guarantee I could get a college scholarship, and they said I'd have a pretty good shot at making it in the NFL," recalls Kluwe. "So I was like, 'Well, that seems like the greatest job ever, so I think I'll practice.'"
Kluwe's chance to prove himself came during his senior year at a playoff game against Loyola. With less than a minute to go, Loyola scored a field goal, putting them ahead by three points.
Los Alamitos got the ball back with 37 seconds to go. They started with a hook-and-ladder that bought them about 20 yards, then chucked a seven-yard pass and ran out of bounds to stop the clock on Loyola's 43-yard line.
The team figured they could either try a Hail Mary pass to the end zone or go for a near-impossible field goal, recalls Los Alamitos coach John Barnes. When Kluwe was sent in, the other team was so sure the kick was a fake that they called a timeout.
"I remember just saying, 'Hey, nobody's gonna expect you to make this, but don't miss it right or left. Kick it down the middle and see what you got,'" recalls Barnes. "And he boomed it."
The kick sailed 60 yards through the goal posts, breaking the league's playoff record for distance.
"The place went nuts," Barnes says. "They started chanting his name, 'Kluwe, Kluwe,' the whole next three or four minutes while we got prepared for overtime."
The team came back and won the game. Kluwe was named a USA Today "All-High School" player, and his last-second heroics would forever be legend in Los Alamitos.
"This is fucked up," Kluwe thought as he lay awake in bed one night in early September.
The source of his unrest was an article he'd found earlier that evening on Profootballtalk.com, an insider site he frequents for sports news. It was about a letter from Maryland Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti regarding linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who had been appearing in ads advocating for gay marriage. Burns warned Bisciotti that it wasn't appropriate for a player to take such a controversial political position.
"I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football League owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions," Burns wrote.
After about 20 minutes of tossing and turning, Kluwe sat in front of his computer and organized his thoughts into a rebuttal.
"I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland's state government," it began. "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."
Kluwe finished the letter in a little over an hour and sent it to Deadspin, where he'd been tapped as a semi-regular contributor. Then he went back to bed and slept like a baby.
When Kluwe looked at his phone the next afternoon, it was exploding with notifications from his Twitter account.
"I'll never forget it," Kluwe says. "I kept track of the negative replies. There were probably about six of about 6,000 responses on Twitter in that first day. It was overwhelmingly positive."
Burns quickly walked back his statements a couple of days later, conceding in an interview with the Baltimore Sun that Ayanbadejo "has his First Amendment rights."
But it was too late. Kluwe's letter went viral, and he suddenly had a national audience for his campaign in favor of gay marriage. Minnesota will be one of four states facing some variation of a marriage vote this November. Based on how these races have played out around the country, the odds are against same-sex marriage advocates, says Matt Barreto, political science professor and poll director at the University of Washington.
"It could happen, because nationally we know public opinion is moving more and more in favor of same-sex rights," says Barreto. "But historically, if we look at the data, it doesn't look good for these initiatives in other states."
Though the polls in Minnesota show a close race, the outlook for gay-marriage supporters might be bleaker than it appears, says Bill Hillsman, a political consultant best known for his work on Senator Paul Wellstone's campaign. "I think there's a lot of people in the state, especially Democrats, who may say one thing about what they're going to do on this particular issue and then do something else."
To defeat the amendment, it won't be enough to simply piggyback on Obama and Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (of Minnesota) votes, Hillsman says. Gay marriage groups will have to aggressively pull votes from independents and moderate conservatives. Even with a professional football player on their side, Hillsman is pessimistic the amendment's opponents will be able to sway enough voters.
"I think what Chris Kluwe has done is opened up a potential audience that otherwise wasn't even on the radar," says Hillsman. "That audience, I would submit, is younger, it's male, and they probably don't really care that much about this issue."
In a race that's been viciously politicized, Kluwe has managed to break through the static with both his status as a professional athlete and the colorful language he used in the letter, says Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.
"You kind of expect your Democrats or Republicans to stand up with a bazooka and blow away your opponent," says Jacobs. "That's what kind of made this special. We've kind of been shaken awake by Chris Kluwe's first barrage and how eloquent and powerful he was."
Thirty minutes outside Minneapolis, in a spacious but modest suburban house, Kluwe takes a seat in his near-empty living room. Now that their oldest daughter is ready to start school, Kluwe and his wife are selling their Minnesota home and moving their permanent residence back to Southern California.
In the meantime, only the essentials remain: a few Xbox games, two laptops — one for writing, the other for gaming — and a bookshelf filled mostly with science fiction: Isaac Asminov, Kurt Vonnegut, and Warren Ellis.
"I read super-fast," says Kluwe, who got a perfect score on the verbal portion of the SAT. "Usually a 300-page book will take me about two and a half, three hours to go through. That helped me out a lot in school, because I didn't go to class, and the night before the test I'd be like, 'Oh, I'm going to read the textbook.'"
Though Kluwe is now the spokesman for a liberal cause, he doesn't consider himself a Democrat. He favors neither Obama nor Romney and describes the presidential race as a contest to kiss the ass of the most billionaire donors, rather than the battle of ideas it purports to be. If Kluwe had to label himself, he'd say libertarian, but that doesn't quite sum it up either.
"My ideal world is one where we don't need a government, because people treat each other the way they want to be treated," Kluwe says. "But until we fix human nature, that's probably not going to happen."
Kluwe says he doesn't see the issue of gay marriage as political. His philosophy on the subject goes back to the Golden Rule, and he believes an amendment that would constitutionally criminalize same-sex marriage amounts to institutionalized segregation.
"You see all these arguments against gay marriage, and they all kind of logically boil down to: 'It makes me feel icky,'" says Kluwe. "That's not a valid logical argument! Like, tell me that gay people getting married is going to cause someone to steal your garage door opener, or it's going to cause your dog to poop in your front yard. I can argue against that!"
Kluwe isn't the only NFL player to enter the public discourse on gay rights. In 1975, three years after retiring from the Green Bay Packers, David Kopay became the first NFL player to publicly come out of the closet. Though he believed he was a prime candidate for a coaching spot, Kopay was turned down by the NFL and instead spent his life after football as a salesman for a floor-covering business. Kopay later said he thought he'd been shunned by the league for his sexual orientation.
Though the NFL wasn't ready for him, Kopay was an early revolutionary in the fight for equality in professional sports. He went on to become a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation, and an ambassador of the Federation of Gay Games. In 1986, he revealed a relationship with a former Washington Redskins player who died — still closeted — of AIDS that year, sending a message to other gay athletes that they weren't alone.
"That was groundbreaking," says Jose Guillermo De Los Reyes-Heredia, professor of sexuality studies for the University of Houston, of Kopay's coming out. "I think he did it because, at that moment, there were a lot of gay and lesbian movements going on in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco."
Despite Kopay's bravery, football remained an unwelcome environment for gay people. The next retired player didn't come out until 1992 — 17 years later. Being gay was still the greatest taboo in football, and even the whiff of a rumor could be career-ending, says Esera Tuaolo.
During his nine years with five NFL teams, Tuaolo had to completely dissociate himself with his sexuality. He regularly witnessed fistfights in the locker room over players calling each other gay, and coaches sometimes joined in the hazing. It was enough to make him contemplate suicide.
"It was part of my life," he says. "That was my career. Everyone makes sacrifices in their life. For me, I had to sacrifice part of my humanity."
By the mid-2000s, the topic of homosexuality in major-league sports became impossible to ignore. In the span of a single week in 2007, retired NBA player John Amaechi came out as gay, and former Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway came out as homophobic, bluntly saying in a radio interview that he wouldn't want Amaechi on his team.
"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known," Hardaway said. "I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."
Despite Hardaway's comments and several death threats, Amaechi later announced that he had "underestimated America" and had been overwhelmingly welcomed with acceptance. For fans, hearing the controversial debate played out so publicly in a single week was unprecedented, says Cyd Ziegler, co-founder of Outsports.com, a gay-friendly sports website.
"Professional sports took a jump in our culture then," Ziegler says. "They saw both sides in that one week . . . I think ever since that moment, the progress of gay equality in sports has sped up a lot."
Today, it's generally agreed that sports culture is more accepting of homosexuality, and the evidence is in the headlines. Last year, Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts came out, and former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin appeared on the cover of Out Magazine, opening up in an interview about his gay brother. Former Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy also came out as gay this year, as did retired Seattle Seahawk Wade Davis — the fourth NFL player to come out after retirement. And teams across the professional sports gamut are releasing "It Gets Better" videos with anti-gay-bullying messages, inspired by alt-weekly sex columnist Dan Savage.
"I think the last year has seen a tipping point for a variety of reasons," says Woog. "Everybody was sort of waiting for an athlete to come out in one of the major sports, and what happened instead was a lot of activity on the straight ally front."
But the major leagues are not yet rid of homophobia. Most recently, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended for etching what translates to "You are a faggot" in the black paint under his eye during a game.
The fact that Escobar was suspended for only three days is evidence that the league isn't fully committed to eradicating the problem, argues Dave Pallone, a gay former baseball umpire and author of Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball.
"The Toronto Blue Jays should have said, 'Go home. Take the last two weeks off,'" says Pallone. "What he did was beyond the scope of ridiculous and beyond the scope of hurtful."
Even with the emergence of allies like Kluwe, the final test has yet to come, says Pallone.
"There's only one thing that will knock down that wall entirely, and that will be for a male athlete in one of the major sports to come out while he's still playing."
One month before the amendment vote, Kluwe is getting ready to wait tables at Manny's Steakhouse. It's a Monday night, and Kluwe has agreed to work at a celebrity charity dinner organized by Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway. An hour before the event begins, Kluwe is in a hidden VIP room with black velvet curtains and a flat-screen TV, perusing his Twitter feed on his phone.
"Just checking the jabber," he says.
In these final weeks before the election, Kluwe will be a blunt instrument in the "Vote No" campaign. Minnesotans for Equality has transformed the highlights of his now-famous letter into T-shirts that read: "I am a Lustful Cockmonster" and "I am a Unique Sparkle Pony." Half of the proceeds will go to the campaign, the other half to Kluwe's charity. The group is also trying to arrange a debate between Kluwe and any willing Republican. So far, no one has volunteered.
No matter what happens this November, Kluwe is confident the country is changing for the better.
"I think the saying is, 'History tends to move more toward greater equality over time,'" Kluwe says. "Younger generations grow up and learn that, hey, having a gay friend or knowing someone is gay, it's not the end of the world. It's not going to kill you."
In the arena of sports, Kluwe already has witnessed an evolution in the locker room, he says. When he was a rookie in 2005, it was commonplace to throw around words like "faggot" and "gay" as insults. Now that's no longer acceptable. And when he does hear slurs, Kluwe actively calls out the other player, to set an example for the rookies.
"Hopefully, when they become seven-year or eight-year vets, they can pass that on to the next generation," Kluwe says. "It doesn't matter what your sexuality is, as long as you can play on the football field."
When the majority of athletes accustomed to such language retire, Kluwe is confident an NFL player will finally be able to come out while he's still active. It will be hard, Kluwe concedes, but the player will have plenty of support from people like him.
Asked if sexuality will ever be a non-issue in the NFL, Kluwe nods confidently.
"Yup," he says, stone-faced. "About 60 years from now, when all the old people are dead."
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