The public relations battle between former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and his old team took a turn for the worse late last week. On Friday, the team announced that they would be suspending special teams coach Mike Priefer for three games, after an internal investigation found that the coach had made at least one of the woefully homophobic statements attributed to him by Kluwe in a piece for Deadspin. But while the punter has also alleged he was released from the team because of his outspoken support of gay rights, the report (which you can read here) concludes that Kluwe was let go because his activism was a "distraction," not because the coaching staff disagreed with what he was saying.
Up until now the story of Kluwe's public spat with the Vikings has been framed largely as a lone player taking a noble stand against an entrenched, outdated culture of macho intolerance, but now it appears that the punter isn't as virtuous as some thought. According to the report, Kluwe himself has made the same sort of jokes he's been speaking out against; in one instance, he allegedly cut a hole in the back of his shorts to make light of Jerry Sandusky's rape victims in front of strength and conditioning coach Tom Kanavy, a Penn State alum. While responding to the report on Twitter, Kluwe made himself look worse by insinuating he had all kinds of dirt on the Vikings players and coaches that he could reveal, including:
Oooh, shall we talk about the time two very well known Vikings players were caught in a compromising situation with an underage girl?
— Chris Kluwe (@ChrisWarcraft) July 19, 2014
And thus, the narrative has shifted. In a representative column on the punter, CBS Sports' Gregg Doyel did and threw the baby out with the ice tub water, declaring that "Chris Kluwe can't be a moral crusader anymore after a cruel Twitter rant. Kluwe, he added, "apparently did stuff in the Vikings locker room that was every bit as offensive, every bit as homophobic, as Priefer."
Kluwe's alleged jokes* don't diminish his fine work as an advocate for LGBT people, Doyel's piece says, but, you know, it does completely discredit him as a person and invalidate anything he has said or will say on the issue.
This sort of kill-the-messenger thinking goes on whenever anyone speaks out about anything. Al Gore flies a private jet, so therefore climate change isn't an issue. Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald want attention and glory, so therefore the NSA's spying is OK. Chris Kluwe is a grandstanding attention-seeking jerk, so let's talk about that instead of the substance of his argument. It's all a classic rhetorical trick of shifting the focus from the matter at hand to the character of the person leading the discussion. But guess what? Sometimes jerks are right. In fact, sometimes they're the most reliable ones to report back to us of wrongdoing, specifically because they've been there.
In a more balanced look at the situation, Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman calls Kluwe both a hero and a hypocrite: "His entire case, his entire movement, was about changing the workplace culture for the better, to make it less vulgar, and more respectful. Yet Kluwe, it turns out, was contributing to the ugly aspects of the locker room himself."
Freeman concludes Kluwe is just as flawed as the rest of us, which is certainly true, but I'm not sure why that comes as a surprise to anyone. The fact that Kluwe himself engaged in this sort of bro "humor," in fact, is further evidence of just how insidious homophobic behavior and language can be.
I had a discussion about this very subject with a group of close friends of mine not too long ago. Despite being the type of people who fully support of gay marriage and would never harbor any sort of ill will toward anyone for their sexuality, we have, over the years, found ourselves occasionally and unthinkingly slipping into a sort of heteronormative insult structure that we would never use in public and whose actual meaning we would never seriously endorse. I suspect you'd be hard pressed to find any group of male friends who haven't casually called one another "gay" at one point or another. My friends and I agreed: We had never meant it like that, but regardless, we shouldn't do it anymore.
This isn't meant as a defense of Kluwe's character, or an endorsement of offensive jokes. He may well be the jerk some have made him out to be, though I can't say I care either way. But the situation does remind us that locker room groupthink is so pervasive that even those of us who know better, who say we know better, and who publicly speak out against it, can find ourselves thoughtlessly yanked into its orbit through it sheer omnipresence. The fact that Kluwe may have engaged in tasteless, corrosive behavior like this doesn't discredit him, it actually proves the point he's been trying to make.
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*EDIT, July 23rd: An earlier version of this article made an allusion to an "apparent cover-up of a statutory rape." That line has been removed because it is not clear that the "compromising situation" Kluwe referred to was a sex act.