America's last closet: Professional sports
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.
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.
They sat around the dinner table and living room eating Chinese food and Southern-style peach cobbler, which Zeigler baked at Sam's request. Kopay punched Sam in the arm over and over, maybe a little harder than the 71-year-old realized, trying to psych him up for the rough road the next day could bring.
"You've gotta play," he told Sam. "Not only for yourself, but for other people."
Then Bragman silenced the room to make a toast. He first raised his glass to Kopay, his longtime friend, whom he called a pioneer for gay rights in the NFL. He next turned to Sam, who would be picking up where Kopay left off almost 40 years ago.
After dinner, Sam and a few others continued the festivities at a karaoke bar, where Sam sang the Temptations' "My Girl" with Davis, Ayanbadejo, and Zeigler on backup vocals, and then at the Abbey, a gay bar in West Hollywood.
"It was just interesting," recalls Zeigler, "being with somebody who 24 hours later would be the biggest news story in the country, and no one — I mean no one — had any idea who he was."
The next day, the New York Times, ESPN's "Outside the Lines," and Outsports all ran stories identifying Sam as gay. The timing of Sam's announcement wasn't happenstance: He'd just finished his senior season at Mizzou, where he was named 2013's SEC Defenseman of the Year, and in two weeks would be entering the NFL Scouting Combine, where coaches and scouts observe prospects in anticipation of the draft.
"It was important for us that we come out before the draft," says Bragman. "We wanted teams to know what they were getting with Michael."
KLUWE FIRST BEGAN FEELING THE TENSION mounting in fall 2012, when head coach Leslie Frazier called him into the office and asked him to stop speaking out against the anti-gay marriage amendment.
Frazier didn't take issue particularly with what Kluwe was saying, just that he was making headlines talking about a subject other than football, says Kluwe.
But despite the warning from his boss, Kluwe decided to continue his campaign for gay rights.
"I figured it would blow over after the season was over," he says.
Around this time, Kluwe alleges, special teams coach Mike Priefer started making anti-gay comments during practice, a charge that Priefer has strenuously denied.
Kluwe says he didn't tell any of his superiors about the remarks at the time because he didn't believe he could trust Frazier to take action.
In spring 2013, the Vikings drafted UCLA punter Joe Locke in the fifth round, a clear signal to Kluwe that his time was up. The Vikings dropped Kluwe from the team before the upcoming season, issuing a statement thanking Kluwe for his years of service.
But many of Kluwe's fans, including Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, questioned whether the punter's LGBT activism contributed to his dismissal. At the time, Kluwe said he didn't know if it was a factor.
"I'm not in those meetings," Kluwe offered, "so I don't know what's said in there."
The Oakland Raiders signed Kluwe shortly afterward, but the team cut him before he played a single game.
The career of the most famous straight advocate for gays in the NFL was suddenly and unceremoniously over.
TWO WEEKS AFTER COMING OUT PUBLICLY, Michael Sam addressed a throng of reporters at the combine press room, already half grinning as he walked up to the podium.
"How you guys doing today?" he asked with a laugh. "My name's Michael Sam, and I play football for the University of Missouri. As you may know, Missouri's the 'Show Me State.' And you'd think I've shown you guys enough these past couple weeks, but I'm learning with the media you guys still want more. So ask your questions."
Would you be hesitant about going into the Miami Dolphins locker room? reporters asked, alluding to the bullying scandal. Do you think you'll inspire other gay players to come out? Do you feel like a trailblazer?
"I feel like I'm Michael Sam," he answered.
For as long as there's been talk of gay athletes coming out, there have been questions as to how the revelation would go over with fans, teammates, and coaches. In the case of Sam, the news came as no surprise to his teammates in Mizzou; Sam had told them months before they read about it in the New York Times. In fact, it seems like just about everyone in Columbia, Missouri, including the local press, knew Sam was gay and kept his secret.
"I don't think anyone was going to ask him about it, because there really wasn't a point," says Jack Witthaus, assistant sports editor for the Maneater, Mizzou's campus newspaper.
After Sam made his much-heralded national announcement, the campus community came out in droves to support him. When the Westboro Baptist Church — of "God Hates Fags" fame — stormed Mizzou to protest Sam in February, hundreds of people showed up at a counter protest, including a few of Sam's teammates, says Witthaus.
"The students, I think, overwhelmingly supported him," he says. "I didn't hear a single negative thing about Michael Sam."
Zeigler of Outsports believes the mainstream media has sensationalized the idea that a gay player would be an unwelcome distraction. As evidence, he points to Jason Collins. Though Collins's announcement indisputably made national news, the media circus mostly died down within a few days of the Nets signing him. Today, reporters at post-game press conferences are most interested in how well Collins played that day rather than his personal life.
"For years, the media has created a bunch of boogie men for out gay athletes," says Zeigler. "At times, it's been [that] the players are going to reject that person. And after all the interviews we at Outsports have done with athletes, that's just not the case."
Part of this can be attributed to a societal shift on the issue of gay rights. Seventeen states have now legalized same-sex marriage, and President Obama has announced his support for the repeal of the much-maligned Defense of Marriage Act. The military has repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell with none of the catastrophic consequences predicted by old guard dead-enders like John McCain.
Today, even if athletes do object to homosexuality, it's far less acceptable to voice that opinion publicly. When a player's homophobic rhetoric does get out, it's often met with howls of protest from fans and media.
"We've seen athletes on a professional level sort of grow up a little bit I think when it comes to realizing they can't have anti-gay rhetoric be part of their public speech," says Brian Healey, spokesman for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that battles homophobia in sports. "It's not gonna fly anymore."
Which isn't to say that homophobia has disappeared from the locker room entirely. Look no further than San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who stuck his foot in his mouth in the lead-up to Super Bowl XLVII when he responded to a question about gay athletes by saying, "Ain't got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff."
While many publicly expressed support for Jason Collins in the wake of his announcement — including Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama, and Kobe Bryant — Collins told reporters that at least one "knucklehead" taunted him in the locker room for his sexuality.
And Michael Sam has already received plenty of skepticism before draft day. Anonymous NFL executives were quoted by Sports Illustrated opining that the NFL is still too much of a "man-to-man's game" for a gay player, and that someone like Sam would "chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
Yet Sam has taken it all in stride.
"I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player," he told reporters at the combine, "instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."
THIS JANUARY, FOUR MONTHS AFTER THE RAIDERS CUT KLUWE, Priefer was rumored to be the potential successor to Frazier. So Kluwe decided it was time to go public.
In an open letter to Deadspin, Kluwe called Priefer a homophobe and Frazier and team general manager Rick Spielman cowards. Though he couldn't say for certain, Kluwe asserted that he believes his activism was the reason he was fired.
Priefer quickly offered a vehement denial. "I want to be clear that I do not tolerate discrimination of any type and am respectful of all individuals," he wrote. "I personally have gay family members who I love and support just as I do any family member."
Next Kluwe hired Clayton Halunen, an employment law attorney based in Minneapolis. Halunen says the allegations could be precedent-setting when it comes to deterring future workplace harassment in pro sports.
"I think it's time, and I think people are really open to this idea of changing this machismo that's always been part of professional sports," says Halunen. "I think those days might be over."
The Vikings denied Kluwe's claims that they dismissed him because of his activism, but nevertheless hired a team of investigators. Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Chris Madel, a onetime prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, are leading the probe. Madel in particular has a history of investigating athletic cases: He manned the Fiesta Bowl investigation into political kickbacks in Arizona in 2011, finding that bowl employees had made $46,539 in illegal campaign contributions.
"They have a pretty good track record with the Fiesta Bowl," Kluwe says of Madel. "I think that they're invested in actually getting to the truth, to what actually happened, and I think the Vikings are too. So I'm hopeful that things will turn out the right way. And if they don't, then we'll go from there."
Based on talks with investigators so far, Halunen and Kluwe say they're optimistic that the findings will be in their favor. But if they do lose this round, they plan to fight the next one with civil action.
"At the end of the day, if they do come back and say this didn't happen, then it's a cover-up," says Halunen. "We will sue them and we will hold them accountable."
Even in the midst of his battle, Kluwe expresses hope for the future of the issue so dear to his heart. The mere fact that the Vikings hired outside investigators, he says, is evidence of the rapid cultural evolution.
"I think 10 years ago, no one would even be talking about this," Kluwe says. "It would just be swept under the rug and business as usual."
Kluwe acknowledges that if the Vikings do side with Priefer, it could be a setback. But one way or another, Kluwe says, it won't be the end.
"That's a fight I'm willing to wage," Kluwe says. "That's not something that I'm just going to be like, 'Oh, well, they found no wrongdoing, I guess we just go on with our lives.' That's not the kind of person I am."
He chuckles in a way that belies the seriousness of his commitment.
"If we're in this, we're in it for the long haul."
SITTING IN THE PARK IN HUNTINGTON, Kluwe predicts that there will be a waiting period to see how players like Sam and Collins are treated. If they appear to get a fair shot, Kluwe hopes it will inspire other athletes to follow. He acknowledges that some teams might decline to draft Sam because he's come out as gay, but is optimistic Sam will find a place to play.
"I think there are teams out there who will draft him, because I think they understand he's a football player who can offer something to the team to help them win," says Kluwe.
As Sam heads into the draft this Friday, his sexual orientation isn't the only factor that could hurt his stock. At 6'4" and 260 pounds, he's considered small for an NFL defender. And though he performed well at Pro Day, he had a bad showing at the combine. By most accounts, he's not a top draft pick for any team.
Still, Sam has a good shot at being picked up in the later rounds this weekend, says Russell Lande, a former NFL scout who watched Sam perform at Pro Day. "I'd be surprised if he's not. He's not a lead prospect, but he's a really productive player."
The questions scouts will be asking about Sam will likely have nothing to do with his orientation, predicts Lande. They will be more interested in Sam's character, how he'll respond to the demands of his coaches and teammates, and his ability to play through the chronic pain that comes with being a professional football player.
"I don't think his sexuality is even going to come up for most teams," says Lande. "They'll all know it because he came out, but I think they're going to say, 'It is what it is.'"
Now that gay athletes like Sam and Collins have emerged, many wonder what will happen next. Woog believes it's only a matter of time before more athletes follow their lead. The ultimate goal, he says, is for gay athletes to be so commonplace that it no longer even makes the news.
"Everybody remembers Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player," says Woog. "A decent number of people remember Larry Doby, the second black baseball player. But nobody remembers the third."
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