by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
There's been a lot in the mainstream media lately about pro athletes who are Gay. You gotta love the mainstream media sometimes (yes, I'm being sarcastic) because whenever something becomes popular they almost act like they had something to do with it. In magazines and newspapers or websites that barely ever had any LGBT content three or four years ago, they will now put a Gay person on the cover. It's not a bad thing per se, it's just a thing with me I guess. I bring this up because lately, whenever a pro athlete comes out as Gay, the media always reports it like, 'Well, that's that. So-and-so is Gay. Homophobia in sports is over!'
Well, that's just not true.
While there have been some amazing steps forward in the world of professional athletes, there has also been some push back - none more prevalent than in the National Football League.
Take for instance Chris Kluwe. In a scathing screed published online last week, former NFL player and Gay rights activist Chris Kluwe accused top members of staff at the Minnesota Vikings of firing him because of his vocal support for same-sex marriage.
The team, however, has since come forward to say the decision had nothing to do with Kluwe's views, prompting TMZ to run the headline 'Gay War Explodes in NFL.'
Kluwe's post alleges that he was 'fired by [Special Teams Coordinator] Mike Priefer, a bigot who didn't agree with the cause I was working for, and two cowards, [then-Head Coach] Leslie Frazier and [General Manager] Rick Spielman [...] who lacked the fortitude to disagree with Mike Priefer on a touchy subject matter.'
Kluwe was punter for the Vikings for eight seasons before being let go in May, He says trouble with the team's leadership began in 2012 when he began speaking up for same-sex marriage.
At the time, Kluwe was working with the LGBT rights group Minnesotans for Marriage Equality, which successfully fought to defeat the Minnesota Gay Marriage Amendment, that sought to define marriage as being between a man and woman in the state's constitution. Voters voted against the amendment and same-sex marriage has since been legalized in Minnesota.
It was during the same-sex marriage fight in Minnesota that Kluwe first made headlines after writing a blistering open letter to Maryland state delegate Emmett Burns, blasting the Republican politician for his 'vitriolic hatred and bigotry.' The letter was a response to a letter Burns had previously written to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, demanding that Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was the Ravens' linebacker at the time, be stopped from publicly endorsing same-sex marriage.
According to Kluwe, then-Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier approached him the day after his letter was published and asked him 'to be quiet, and stop speaking out on this stuff.' Frazier is no longer the team head coach. He was fired from the Vikings following the team's 5-10-1 season this year.
In the days and months that followed that first incident, Kluwe says that he was approached on different occasions by Frazier and Spielman with similar requests to be silent. In addition he alleges he was mocked and treated unfairly by Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer.
Kluwe says Priefer often used anti-Gay language in front of him and the team. 'We should round up all the Gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows,' Kluwe quotes Priefer as saying at a November team meeting.
After Kluwe was cut from the Vikings, speculation was rife as to whether the punter had been fired over his views on Gay rights. Kluwe was careful with his answers, 'I honestly don't know because I'm not in those meetings,' he said in a May radio interview with HuffPost Gay Voices' Editor-at-Large Michelangelo Signorile.
In his Deadspin post this week, however, Kluwe was very direct, saying he was 'pretty confident' his activism was the reason he got fired.
The Minnesota Vikings released a statement slamming the allegations. 'Any notion that Chris [Kluwe] was released from our football team due to his stance on marriage equality is entirely inaccurate and inconsistent with team policy. Chris was released strictly based on his football performance,' read the statement.
Doubt over whether Kluwe's political views had anything to do with the Vikings letting him go is one of many reasons why speaking out for LGBT equality is thorny for athletes in the first place. If you trained and worked hard most of your young adult life to reach the pro level in whatever sport you desired, would you so easily give it up so you could stick up for Gay athletes?
'There is an ever-present awareness that your ability to play the game you love is being determined by people who will always have just cause to fire you, if you're not breaking all the records,' says Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, which mobilizes straight athletes to speak out in support of the LGBT community.
Kluwe's allegations push the issue of intolerance on the football field - or any pro sport for that matter -to the forefront after what has been a troubling year for the NFL. Kluwe wrote that he didn't think his situation was a problem of 'institutionalized homophobia' in the NFL, but a matter of individual homophobic people who need to be replaced.
Taylor said the NFL has made great strides in making the league more Gay-friendly.
But Kluwe and others say otherwise. And it isn't just homophobia either.
Richard Incognito, the Miami Dolphins player was suspended for allegedly leaving threatening messages on fellow Dolphin Jonathon Martin's voicemail that included some racial slurs, points to another type of prejudice that many people continue to say is gone: racism.
Both the Incognito and Kluwe vs. Vikings controversy spur discussion as to whether the aggressive language and behaviors known to exist in NFL locker rooms cross a line or if it is accepted, or almost certainly, is swept under the rug as merely 'boys will be boys' jargon.
There are players who take to social media or in direct lines to the media that make statements deemed outright homophobic, racist, problematic and - idiotic.
In March of last year, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons tweeted that it would be a 'selfish act' for a Gay NFL player to come out of the closet. At the time it was rumored that up to four might come out as Gay in the off-season. Gay rights groups were, rightfully so, pissed off about the ridiculous sentiment.
And then there were the homophobic comments San Francisco 49ers player Chris Culliver made to a comedian before the Super Bowl last year. Speaking with shock jock Artie Lange, Culliver said he was not OK with Gay players in the NFL or on his team.
'I don't do the Gay guys man,' Culliver said. 'I don't do that. No, we don't got no Gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.'
Culliver went on to say that Gays would not be welcomed in the locker room, but if they remained closeted, he might be all right with them playing.
'Yeah, come out 10 years later,' he said.
Former NFL player, Wade Davis, agreed (kind of) with Culliver, telling The Daily Beast that he personally knows of several Gay players currently in the NFL, although none of them have come out due to a continuing stigma in the league.
The thing is - Davis is Gay.
Davis came out of the closet last year after his playing days were over. He says there are Gay men in the NFL now who are semi-open: they are known to be Gay by their teammates who are accepting because their homosexuality is not well-known and thus not something they must answer questions about.
'Openly Gay is a bit strong cuz when we think of openly Gay, we think of walking down the street with your boyfriend, but there are players who know that this player may have a boyfriend or may not date women and that's just it,' he told The Daily Beast. 'It's not talked about.'
'He's there to do a job, I'm here to do a job, it's not talked about, he's my brother, he doesn't treat me any different than anyone else does,' he said.
Davis said he thinks the real issue is that the idea that a Gay man could play sports is an attack to straight guys' masculinity. 'This Gay guy can play my sport better than me? What does that say about me as a straight guy? I think that's why people had an issue,' he said. 'I think the world is evolving around the idea of what is masculinity. I think the adage is true: the more people who are Gay are coming out, the more exposure you have to Gay people and you realize all Gay people aren't just one way. So you realize this person can be Gay and be an amazing athlete.'
'And all Gay men don't want every other guy that walks down the street,' he added. 'I think people are being educated to that. You ask most straight guys and they think that every other Gay man wants you.'
Back to the Kluwe issue - openly-Gay sportscaster Jared Max says Kluwe is bravely standing up against homophobia in the NFL.
'As a Gay guy, [I'm] well aware of the importance of allies and how important a guy like Chris Kluwe was . . . . There's a need for some change.'
Max is a former host on 1050 ESPN Radio in New York. He noted that no Vikings teammates have yet come out to support Kluwe's claims. But he also says he's not surprised.
'That says to me, oh, that's because they're under contract and if they go and talk, they're done. They've already seen what's happened with Kluwe,' Max said.
'Kluwe has made it clear that what he wants is that nobody else goes through this. Because imagine you're a college football player who's about to get drafted by Minnesota and you're Gay. Do you want to go play for the Vikings?'
The answer to that question is most undoubtedly, 'no.'
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