Chris Kluwe calls for Priefer's firing, mulls hostile workplace claim [INTERVIEW]
In fall 2012, leading up to Minnesota's vote on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, I spent about a month tailing Chris Kluwe for a City Pages cover story -- the Vikings punter who became an unlikely celebrity for the Vote No campaign. Over our many interviews, Kluwe spoke in depth about how the locker room culture toward LGBT people was rapidly changing across the major league sports gamut.
But evidence to the contrary was playing out in Kluwe's own locker room, according to a column the ex-punter published on Deadspin Thursday.
In the article, provocatively titled, "I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards and a Bigot," Kluwe says he's "pretty confident" the Vikings let him go as punishment for his off-the-field activism. Among the evidence Kluwe offers are alleged utterances from special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer (the "bigot"), who has been rumored as a potential candidate for the team's head coaching position. According to the post, Priefer regularly made homophobic comments after Kluwe came out in favor of gay marriage, saying in one meeting, "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows."
The Internet just about blew up, as it does, and there's already a viral campaign to prevent Priefer from getting another NFL coaching gig. Priefer issued a denial, and the Vikings say they will review Kluwe's claims, noting his dismissal was "strictly based on his football performance."
We caught up with Kluwe Thursday afternoon to talk about his post, the response, and what happens next.
City Pages: What's the feedback been like today?
Chris Kluwe: It's been about normal for the Internet. Had people saying, "Hey thank you for speaking out, thank you for saying what you do." And then people saying, "We hope you get eaten alive by ferrets." You know, about normal.
Have you heard anything from the Vikings?
CK: Nope, but I have like 18 unanswered voicemails on my phone that I need to get through, so I'll see if there's one or two in there.
Based on your post, it sounds like the blowback from Frazier started pretty quickly [in fall 2012]. When did you start to see the writing on the wall in terms your imminent dismissal?
CK: When they drafted the punter in the fifth round. Up until that point, I thought me and T.J. Conley would be competing for the spot, which, again, like I said in the piece, I thought was a fair choice for the team to make. Because maybe I don't come back from my knee surgery properly, maybe I'm not kicking as well as I used to. But that's a choice you make as a team. But when you draft a punter in the fifth round, then that's clearly your -- that's your guy. So at that point, I was like, "OK, I need to write this stuff down because this is a story I'm going to want to tell some day."
But before that, even though Frazier was calling you into his office, you didn't think your job was in jeopardy?
CK: No. I figured it would blow over after the season was over. The [gay marriage] vote would happen one way or another, and we'd go back to playing football.
Do you think Frazier specifically took issue with what you were saying, or just the fact that you were taking a public stance on a political issue?
CK: I think in Frazier's case, it was more taking a public stance on a political issue. Every head coach in the NFL wants their team to be the one that no one talks about. So pretty much anyone who does anything is told, "Don't do that thing." And like I said in the piece, I felt that it was something that I needed to speak out about, because it was the right thing to do, and I felt like I could have an impact.
What makes you think that?
CK: Because he never made any comments to me about, you know, either homophobic or about this isn't a particular thing you should talk about. It seemed to be more of a general, "Just don't bring media attention to the team." Whereas, with coach Priefer, it was very much a, "I don't agree with you on this specific issue." And I'm not going to cast aspersions on coach Frazier's character when nothing he said makes me believe that that's what he believed.
You mention Zygi coming to your corner early on in all this. Where was he later on though when you really needed him? Did he ever come back and take your side again?
CK: This was all happening inside the locker room, and Zygi's not really in the locker room. He's very much a hands-off owner. That's how he runs his team. So it wasn't something I really felt comfortable bringing up to him. Like I said, I was hoping it would blow over at the end of the season and I could go on with my job. But as it turns out, that wasn't the case.
You say Priefer began using homophobic language after you came out in favor of gay marriage -- but not before. Why do you think he did this? Was he trying to mess with you, trying to get a rise out of you?
CK: I think at first it may have been joking. You know, half serious, half joking, trying to get a rise. But when he said, "We should round up all the gays and send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows," that was said in a completely dead serious tone of voice. And at that point, I knew, OK, there's something else here. This is not messing around anymore.
But there was a period where you thought he was joking, maybe taking it a little too far, but not malicious?
CK: It was uncomfortable, but again, it was something that -- in the NFL, you can't really tell your coach, "Hey, stop saying these things to me." Especially when you're coming up on a contract year. You have to make it through the season with these people. And it only gets worse as the season goes on, that's a constant for every year.
I think that quote you just mentioned is the one that sticks out to a lot of people: "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows."
CK: Yeah, and again, for me, that's really where it crosses over that line from, "OK you're not being politically correct, but maybe you're just teasing or whatever," to, "OK, now you really mean what you say, and the tone in which you said it -- you know, that's messed up."
Did you ever bring this to the attention of any of [Priefer's] superiors?
CK: No. I didn't bring it to coach Frazier because honestly I didn't trust him at that point, after everything he had said about me not speaking out on the issue anymore. And it's not like I can just walk to Zygi's office and be like, "Hey, Zygi how are you doing today?" Again, I felt that if I just kept my head down and did my job, hopefully this would blow over.
So you didn't feel like there was anyone in place above Priefer who you could bring this to, and you could trust?
CK: No, not really. I mean, in NFL world, it's a very close, tight-knit world. The instant you start saying stuff about that, no matter how much you want to try to keep it a secret, it gets out. And you get black-balled from the NFL.
The Vikings released a statement today, they said this was the first time they've been aware of these allegations. Do you think that's true?
CK: Oh yeah, I'm pretty sure it's true. I didn't tell anyone else, because, again, the instant you make allegations like this is the instant you're done playing in the NFL. Case in point, look at the Jonathan Martin situation. There's a very good chance Jonathan Martin never plays again in the NFL, because he's been labeled as a guy who speaks out against his teammates or his coaches.
How do you respond to the people who will say, this the ranting of a disgruntled ex-employee to his ex-employer?
CK: They can say that. But I've presented my case as logically as I can, and it's up to people to make their own decisions.
You say there were other people in the room when [Priefer] made that last comment we were just talking about. Do you think anyone else who was present would come out and verify that that is what he said?
CK: If that ends up being the case, yeah, I think they would, but I'd prefer it not to be. Because some of those people are my friends. Some of them still play in the league, and I'd prefer to keep them out of this. They'll get painted with the same brush and then that's it.
Even if the Vikings seemed to be punishing you for public statements, some will point out that you didn't make any other NFL rosters, either. Do you think your persona hurt you in pursuing those other jobs?
CK: Yes, I think it did. As an aging veteran with the veterans minimum salary -- you know, first off you're trying to compete against a younger guy who doesn't cost as much, and then you also have a reputation for speaking your mind. And most coaches are going to be like, "I don't want to put up with that from a punter." All things being equal, they're going to go with the guy who doesn't speak his mind.
And what kind of message does that send to other professional athletes who would want to speak out on an issue like gay marriage, or another controversial political issue?
CK: I think it sends the message that the NFL hopes it sends: that you should talk about football all the time, and that everything should be about football, and don't do anything else except be football. Because as a corporate mindset, that's exactly what they want.
You've had some time to reflect on how this all played out now. What bothers you the most?
CK: Just the fact that you shouldn't treat people that way. I mean, that's messed up. It's one thing to disagree with me over my opinion. That's fine. I respect that, and I welcome people to do that. But when you fire me for a job that I have been doing perfectly capably, and had been doing capably for multiple years, that's trying to get rid of someone because you don't agree with them.
When I interviewed you in fall of 2012, you talked a lot about how major league sports had come a long way in becoming more accepting toward homosexuality. After all that's happened, do you still believe this is true?
CK: Yeah, I think they've come a really long way. I think 10 years ago, no one would even be talking about this. It would just be swept under the rug and business as usual. Look at things that were said back in the early 2000s and late 1990s. It was OK for NFL players to come out and publicly say, "Being gay is a horrible thing, you should never do that." And people were like, "Sure, yeah, you can do that." And now we're talking about a story where my coach made homophobic comments toward me, and people are like, "Well, that's wrong, you shouldn't do that. You shouldn't have a job if you do that." To me, that's progress.
Where do you go next?
CK: I have no idea. I'll let you know when I get there.
Have you thought about filing a hostile workplace claim against the Vikings, anything like that?
CK: That just really depends on what happens. I'd prefer not to. But again that depends on what other people do. I'd prefer that it was just kept between me, Spielman, Priefer, and Frazier, but sometimes that's just not how the world works.
Anything else you want people to know?
CK: Yes. For 8 of the 8 years I was there, the vast majority of the people in the Vikings organization treated me with respect, treated me with dignity, treated me like a human being. It's unfortunate that this has to paint the organization in a bad light, when it really is just me, Priefer, Frazier, and Spielman. Like I said, I wish it hadn't had to come to this. But it did.
Is there an appropriate action you think the Vikings should take against Priefer?
CK: I think they should fire him.
So you're saying, not only should he not get Frazier's position, but you think he should be fired from his current position?
More coverage on this story:
The 5 most dispiriting revelations in Chris Kluwe's nuclear Deadspin piece
Vikings push back against Chris Kluwe with defensive statement
Mike Priefer: "I vehemently deny the allegations made by Chris Kluwe"
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