Sunday, July 20, 2014

Chris Kluwe and the Vikings: Hammered Down

There is a saying in Japan: the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. It's nicely indicative of where that society is, in re confirming to societal norms, and not putting yourself above the people who pay your pay check. And that's Not America.

The intersection of where football players end and regular humans begin is, I think, found in punters. You've got a group of guys who are expected to be physical -- punters make tackles and get hit far more often than field goal kickers, which is to say, not very often. They hang out with kickers, are as dependent on their long snapper, but they don't have the opportunity to win or lose games, at least, not very often. Both jobs are much more risk than reward, and when you do the job correctly, most people don't appreciate it very much. It's just what was expected.

Since this is the intersection of real football players and regular people, it's small wonder that punters aren't generally assimilated into the regular locker room. Maybe they have regular lineup backgrounds before being shunted into this career, perhaps as a QB that didn't quite make it, or a defensive player that loved the game, but didn't quite have the wheels. There's also a strong foreign influence here, especially with big guys from Aussie rules football or some other sport. You have one job, as the saying goes, and most of the time, that job doesn't seem like it's something that another person is actively trying to prevent you from doing, unlike every other position on the field. It's a difficult one, but it also seems like one where you just won some athletic lottery to win, rather than earned on your own. (This is, of course, a fallacy, as it is with every sport where the sluice of talent is as crowded as it is in the NFL, but so be it.)

Which leads us to the curious case of Chris Kluwe, the longtime Vikings punter who was able to be a bit of a free spirit, especially by NFL standards, when he was bombing the hell out of the ball and being one of the best in the league at his position. As Kluwe aged and the Vikings got worse at talent evaluation, his kicking came under question, as distance became less important than direction and hang time. It's a tale as old as time: individual employee is asked to subjugate his personal numbers for the overall betterment of the company. He does so, because there probably isn't an option, and puts himself at risk. Especially if there are other aspects of his personality that come into question.

And, well, that's the other shoe to drop. As America moves with fits and starts towards a society that's truly ambivalent about human sexuality (as the old saying goes, just don't startle the horses), it does so unevenly, with some regions moving much faster than others, and some, well, not at all. This is where the hammer is put to the nail that there are no red states or blue states, there is just the United States... because, well, no, there is. Regions where change does not happen quickly, where it has never happened quickly, will resist. Men from those regions will make their views known, as they must. And progress will happen, but only on an individual level.

So Kluwe, when presented with an opportunity to establish a post-football personal brand (or, more charitably, when he saw a clear injustice that, as a public figure, he could help to fix), took up his keyboard to work out a wonderfully profane response to a homophobic legislator. And in that moment, he crossed into the realm of More Trouble Than He Was Worth, at least to some members of the Vikings...

And, well, that's just not something you can do as an employer. At least, not legally.

Now, I get why Vikings Fan might think Kluwe was entirely to blame here. He had one job, a job that many think they'd be very happy to do, and nearly everyone prefers that athletes be seen and not heard. Had he just chosen to stay quiet about his feelings, he probably gets another year or two out of the team, and shuffles off into post-football anonymity as that guy who was the punter for a long time.

But what they really need to see here is that Kluwe is, regardless of where you stand on his politics, something of a hero, and completely within his rights to seek legal restitution. Your employer isn't allowed to terminate you based on your political views, even if you share them with the public. They also aren't allowed to create a hostile work environment towards people who don't share their political views. And when they do, they have to pay, and it's not as if any money that Kluwe gets here is going to wind up in higher ticket prices, or a Vikings team that gets penalized under the salary cap.

The Vikings have more or less confirmed their culpability here; the coach in question that Kluwe alleged to have created the hostile work environment, in response to Kluwe's writing, has been disciplined. They've also decided they don't want to pay Kluwe, because they were going to get rid of him anyway for football reasons... but as the Eagles just showed with DeSean Jackson, teams can decide that at any time.

It's going to get uglier, because that's what happens in cases like this, and Kluwe has decided that he has no more bridges to the NFL left to burn. He's going to win, because the case is open and shut. And rather than hating him for it, everyone who has ever shared their opinion should be glad about it...

Because there, but for the grace of a keyboard and words that actually get noticed and attributed to your identity, go you.

And I, with very little interest in tying my nom de plume with my actual name...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Nice essay. Good points.

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