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Chris Kluwe, Tony Dungy, and the Pains of Not Playing the PR Game

In the NFL, you can say whatever you like as long as you know how to say it.
July 24, 2014, 4:12pm
Photo via Flickr user Jeffrey Beall

Chris Kluwe has no friends left in the NFL. Ever since the days of Jim Bouton, being a loudmouthed liberal who breaches locker room confidences is one of the surest ways to make yourself a sports pariah. But at least Bouton was a starting pitcher, and thus had some value to his teams. As a punter, Kluwe was already something of an outsider—the slightest deviation from the Fellowship of Christian Athletes line could've led to him eating lunch alone. His full-throated advocacy for gay rights, along with his fondness for atheism and Minecraft, endeared him to Reddit, but not the other guys in the locker room.

So when Kluwe focused his ire (and he focuses his ire better than he focuses his punts, one of the reasons why he was cut) on a homophobic position coach and a complicit front office, the team dredged up some barely relevant dirt on him, and Kluwe responded on Twitter by making excuses for joking about the Jerry Sandusky rapes. He also threw around what appeared to be veiled accusations about his former teammates fooling around with underage girls. The punter, of course, got rightfully raked over the coals for this stuff, though all any of it tells us is that NFL locker rooms can be toxic—which we already knew, of course. The fact that Kluwe couldn't change this aspect of football culture doesn't take away from the courage he showed by standing up to homophobia and bigotry within the league.

Chris Kluwe's jerkiness actually just proves his point. Read more.

Tony Dungy, another football figure who makes headlines by way of his mouth, has many friends in the NFL. His ability to transition from coaching to television is less a testament to his skill in front of the camera (quick: Name an insightful comment that Dungy made last year during halftime on Sunday Night Football) and more a testament to his ability to work the incestuous league-media politics.

Dungy's acumen was on display this week. When the media picked up his quote about how he wouldn't have drafted Michael Sam because the gay linebacker was a distraction (the catchall excuse for NFL coaches who want to avoid controversial players) the uproar forced him to walk back the comments in a statement that clarified he supported gay players' right to be on a football field and that he was merely reacting to all the media attention Sam was getting, including a rumored reality show. Yesterday, on the Dan Patrick Show, Dungy kept clarifying, saying that he'd like to talk to Sam in person: "I would want to wish him the best and let him know I have no bitterness or animosity towards him. Even though I don't agree with his lifestyle, I love him. And I wish him the best, and I'd love to say that to him."

It's probably unfair to say that the NFL has shunned Kluwe because of his activism while embracing Dungy and his retrograde, bigoted views (loving other men is not a "lifestyle," dude). The simpler truth is that Dungy has a job because he's a smooth operator: When people say bad things about him, he issues a slick statement that makes him seem mature, even tolerant. Kluwe, on the other hand, got hostile and defensive when the Vikings pushed back against the team, giving sports columnists reasons to disparage him and cementing his status as an outsider. Dungy cares about playing the game. Kluwe, evidently, does not.

Fighting for progress is always an uphill battle. The status quo is the status quo for a reason—it's easy for people who lack courage and/or empathy to cling to. It's also the most effective way to sort people socially: those who value popularity and success on one side, assorted misfits and malcontents on the other. Proponents of change have to balance their core beliefs with being socially acceptable enough to invite to parties, or risk a friendless life out on the fringe.

But when the fringe has some moral force on its side, it can tug the respectable middle in its direction. This happened during the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, as activists agitated for change and forced the moderates to respond to them. As a result, there are now monuments dedicated to their courage. The discourse shifts, and the traditionalists and obstructionists pick different battles. Opposition to civil rights became opposition to busing became support of voter ID laws. The John Birch Society became the Moral Majority became the Tea Party.

Two years ago Chris Kluwe decided to use his minor fame for good and stood up to a bigoted Maryland state legislator by calling him a lustful cockmonster. He's been strident and righteous ever since, and refused to bend, even though bending might have given him a chance to one day get a job with the league or one of the media properties permanently in its thrall.

Seven years ago Tony Dungy stood in front of a group of Indiana conservatives and pledged his opposition to marriage equality. Today the discourse has shifted under his feet; he has to say he supports Michael Sam to avoid pissing off his bosses at NBC. Tolerance is winning. History will prove Kluwe was right.

That's the comforting thing activists tell themselves when they make unpopular stands and potentially cost themselves job opportunities and friends. In the meantime, Dungy gets paid millions per year to spout nothingness on NBC while Kluwe is becoming an author and an activist—a much harder row to hoe. But as former unpopular asshole Martin Luther King once said, the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. And what more can a punter ask for than a long arc?

Robert Wheel is an attorney, freelance writer, and former Hartford Whalers season ticket holder who lives in New York and whose work has also appeared in GQ, Deadspin, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter.