The NFL Can't Stop Cutting Its 'Marginal' Gay Rights Advocates

The Atlantic
The NFL Can't Stop Cutting Its 'Marginal' Gay Rights Advocates
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The NFL Can't Stop Cutting Its 'Marginal' Gay Rights Advocates

NFL punter Chris Kluwe, whose expletive-laden public battle with a government official over gay marriage turned him into the most vocal athlete in politics and kicked off the year football (and the rest of the pro sports world) finally tackled gay rights, was cut by the Minnesota Vikings on Monday — just days after he hinted that his advocacy was forcing him out the door. Fellow advocate and Super Bowl champion linebacker Scott Fujita retired a month after coming out in full support of gay players in the locker room in The New York Times. And Brendon Ayanbadejo, the linebacker who championed equal rights on the steps of the Supreme Court, was let go by the Baltimore Ravens, only to turn around the next day and hint that as many as four active NFL players might be coming out together, before the new season begins this fall. Indeed, the league's roster of outspoken gay rights supporters has been depleted, and just when the NFL appears to need them most: Football is preparing for its own Jason Collins moment, amidst outright bigotry, and prominent players questioning whether players are really ready. But were these less prominent advocates released because of the NFL's big gay issues, or because they weren't good enough? And will the real Pro Bowlers please stand up for a new reality where the NBA has already broken ground?

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Kluwe announced the news via Twitter, where he has also taken his politics, on Monday morning:

So long, Minnesota, and thanks for all the fish!

— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) May 6, 2013

Kluwe had a year remaining on his contract, but the NFL doesn't do guaranteed contracts, and Minnesota ranked 22nd in the league in punting average in a breakout year for punters. He put the writing on his social media wall on opening night of last month's NFL Draft, when no team picked openly gay kicker Alan Gendreau — but the Vikings did select UCLA punter Jeff Locke:

I have a picture of my new #Vikingsuniform! Who knows if I'll get to wear it! Looks cool though. twitter.com/ChrisWarcraft/…

— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) April 25, 2013

"It's a shame that in a league with players given multiple second chances after arrests, including felony arrests, that speaking out on human rights has a chance of getting you cut," read a text message from Kluwe, obtained by NBC's Pro Football Talk on the Sunday after the draft. And in typical Kluwe fashion — remember that "lustful cockmonster" open letter to a Maryland politician last September? — he told The Minnesota Star Tribune's Chip Scoggins over the weekend that he would rather be cut for being outspoken about gay rights than play football: 

Now, I would hope that I would get the chance to play football again, because I think I can still play. But if it ends up being something that costs me that position, I think making people aware of an issue that is causing children to commit suicide is more important than kicking a leather ball.

Those comments aren't unlike what Ayanbadejo — the backup Ravens linebacker who made more headlines for his stance on gay rights in the locker room and in Washington at the big anti-gay Super Bowl and beyond — said when he said he was cut a month ago. "I make a lot of noise and garner a lot of attention for various things off the football field. When that starts happening, why do you have that player around?" Ayanbadejo told Newsday on April 4 — a pretty serious assertion that he walked back the next day.

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But was Kluwe cut because he wasn't worth the $1.45 million the Vikings were slated to pay him, or because he was talking more about a new political dialogue than than punting strategy? That depends on who you ask. Ask ESPN's Kevin Seifert, and you'll see the Vikings got rid of a player whose 39.9-yard net average and punts downed inside the 20 yard line put him in the middle-to-bottom of the league. Going by Bleacher Report's Lead NFL Draft writer Matt Miller, the Vikings got rid of the eighth best punter in the league, "a good directional punter who limits touchbacks (two on the year) and keeps the ball from being returnable when at all possible."

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That's... not entirely clear from a player evaluation perspective. But as the second week of Jason Collins's coming out begins, America's first major team-sport athlete is still looking for a job, too. This is raising questions in the sports world that are less driven by statistics than poor taste. This is where the seedy underbelly of sportswriters talking about "marginal" players start comparing gay people with non-gay people, and look for answers that aren't there. NBC's Mike Florio first floated the rumor that NFL team officials "want to know whether Manti Te'o is gay," prompting an underwhelming NFL investigation. When Florio responded to a CBS scoop that "a current gay NFL player is strongly considering coming out," he suggested that a gay player could use his sexuality to his contractual advantage

For a marginal player who may be on his way out of the league, the indirect benefit of coming out could be getting another chance to play from a team that chooses to embrace diversity — or that doesn’t want to be perceived as shunning it.

Florio was smacked down for that observation, and his notion that having a gay teammate would be a general distraction for any team. Token players for a team looking to pump its diversity was seen as ridiculous, because no sport, no matter how many role models it produces and no professional athlete would want any part in this kind of affirmative action.  But "marginal" players like Collins could be setting the stage: "The fact that Collins is an underwhelming player HELPS," argues Deadspin's Drew Magary. "If it's not a big deal to many people for such a low-end player to come out, it will be less of a big deal when a bigger name follows suit. Collins will absorb some of that scrutiny and send it back harmlessly into the atmosphere, where it will disperse."

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So why are all the non-gay gay-rights advocates among the playing ranks still so marginal, and why aren't they playing anymore? To be fair, there are some Rob Gronkowskis and other stars out there being generally awesome about this whole thing, and the Indianapolis Colts are even more awesome, but Kluwe appears to have influenced his Vikings teammates to be more open, even as former stars like Hines Ward admit the opposite: "I don't think football is ready, there's too many guys in the locker room and, you know, guys play around too much," Ward, the former Pro Bowler turned commentator, said after Collins's announcement. That's better than what his former Steelers receiving mate Mike Wallace said the same day, but still: If the NFL is in fact having "internal conversations about how to prepare for the moment when one of its players publicly discusses his homosexuality," where are the conversations on the outside, and who's going to start them? "Lustful cockmonster" might be extreme, but it's not grounds for breaking a contract, and it sure is a better conversation starter than another day at church, or a WNBA player with another thoughtful essay in the Times. If the NFL is truly ready for its breakthrough moment, it doesn't need benchwarmers — it needs all-star advocates. Of the 179 reactions to the Collins news from pro athletes rounded up by Outsports.com, only 24 were NFL players — and only 17 of them were active. Today, the league is down to 16 bold enough to speak, and hardly any loud enough to be heard.

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