America's last closet: Professional sports

Gay athletes are finally coming out, but Chris Kluwe's fight isn't over

America's last closet: Professional sports
Gay athletes are finally coming out, but Chris Kluwe's fight isn't over

SITTING ON A PARK BENCH in the affluent ocean town of Huntington Beach, just a few miles from where he grew up, Chris Kluwe appears in his element this sunny afternoon — probably more so than he ever could be in wintry Minnesota. His long hair is pulled into a ponytail, and as is his custom, he dresses casually in basketball shorts and flip-flops. A landscape of gated communities and mansions stretches for miles.

Kluwe's life has shifted dramatically since he appeared on the cover of City Pages just 18 months ago. At the time, Kluwe was among the highest paid punters in the NFL, with an $8.3 million six-year contract for the Vikings. But though he thought he had enough leg left for at least one more contract, Kluwe's days kicking footballs are over.

Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe is ready to take the fight to the courtroom
Andy Mannix
Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe is ready to take the fight to the courtroom
Chris Kluwe (in back) at the house party to celebrate Michael Sam (center)
Courtesy Howard Bragman
Chris Kluwe (in back) at the house party to celebrate Michael Sam (center)

Kluwe now spends his time tending to his two young daughters, and until recently staffing a table-top gaming store he owned called Mercenary Market. He's preparing an upcoming TED Talk on the topic of "augmented reality and sports." That's when he's not working on his football memoir or the science-fiction trilogy he's writing.

Asked if he has any more long-term career prospects, Kluwe is characteristically nonchalant.

"Not really," he says. "Just kind of hanging out. I think I'll continue writing because I enjoy doing it. And see where life takes me."

The sports world has changed radically since Kluwe began speaking out for gay rights. Before this year, no active gay player had ever come out in the NFL, NHL, MLB, or NBA, earning these four major male sports the unflattering moniker "America's Last Closet."

That changed when veteran NBA center Jason Collins signed a contract with the Brooklyn Nets in February, almost a year after coming out as gay in a Sports Illustrated cover story, earning him a spot on TIME's "100 Most Influential People" list.

Collins was just the first of many gay athletes to come to the fore. On April 9, University of Massachusetts guard Derrick Gordon became the first Division 1 basketball player in history to come out.

University of Missouri defenseman Michael Sam also announced he was gay earlier this year. Which means that if he makes the NFL draft this weekend, Sam will be the first-ever openly gay NFL player.

"I think the takeaway is: Change has come pretty quickly," says Dan Woog, author of Jocks: True Stories of America's Gay Male Athletes. "And it's continuing. There's no turning back."

It's not just the four major U.S. sports that are experiencing this revolution. Among the other notable athletes to come out recently have been WNBA star Brittney Griner, British soccer player Robbie Rogers, and boxer Orlando Cruz.

"We're just waiting for the next domino to fall," says Dave Pallone, a gay former baseball umpire and author of Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball. "I'm hoping it's going to be baseball. I'm really hoping."

As an outspoken straight ally, Kluwe helped launch the issue into the mainstream debate. But Kluwe believes this very off-field activism is why, after eight years, he was cut from the Vikings last summer.

Earlier this year, the team hired investigators to examine Kluwe's claims that a special teams coach regularly spewed homophobic speech on the field. Among his allegations is that the coach once said in a team meeting: "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island and nuke it until it glows."

Kluwe and his lawyer believe their case against the Vikings could help address the bullying culture in locker rooms that has festered for decades, forcing athletes to play their entire careers in the closet.

"It's going to have to change, because there are going to be lawsuits," says Clayton Halunen, Kluwe's attorney. "They're not going to be able to live in this ivory tower anymore like they've been able to, untouchable because they're so powerful."

ON FEBRUARY 8, SPORTS PUBLICIST HOWARD BRAGMAN threw a party at his house in Los Angeles, a private affair with a selective guest list of sports media, agents, and retired athletes, all of whom shared a common mission: to help a gay pro athlete come out publicly.

Chris Kluwe was one of the attendees among a who's who of gay-friendly athletes. They included former Green Bay Packers defenseman David Kopay, who was the first football player to ever come out as gay, after retiring in the '70s. There was Billy Bean, a gay former MLB outfielder, along with Ravens linebacker and same-sex marriage proponent Brendon Ayanbadejo. Also in attendance were retired NFL cornerback Wade Davis, who also came out after retirement, and Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports, a website that covers LGBT issues in sports.

The guest of honor was Michael Sam, who was at the time an almost unknown defenseman from Mizzou. Dressed casually in jeans and a blue plaid shirt, Sam sipped whiskey and showed the others pictures of his boyfriend. He appeared collected and in good spirits, despite the fact that the next day would likely be the most important of his life.

"Michael's not the kind of guy who gets nervous," says Bragman.

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