Get a Kluwe: Punter’s Release Leads to Irresponsible Journalism

Minnesota Viking Supports Freedom to Marry

Minnesota Viking Punter Chris Kluwe was released on Monday. (Photo by Freedom to Marry, Creative Commons Flickr)

“Yellow journalism” is a term that originated in the late Nineteenth Century during the newspaper wars between William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer and refers to journalism that “exploits, distorts, or exaggerates the news to create sensations and attract readers.”   A characteristic of this type of journalism is an article that uses eye catching or dramatic headlines but contains no legitimate or researched information.  To use the parlance of our times, any website that uses “search optimized” and shocking headlines created solely to obtain “page views” could be considered modern day examples of yellow journalism.

After drafting a punter in the fifth round of the NFL Draft, the Vikings cut incumbent punter Chris Kluwe on Monday.  Following the same modus operandi utilized last year when cutting long-time kicker Ryan Longwell, the Vikings opted to rely on a rookie draft pick rather than pay for an aging veteran.  In a vacuum, such a roster decision is not necessarily noteworthy and certainly not unusual at this time of the off-season.

However, Chris Kluwe is an outspoken advocate of gay rights and his release occurred less than one week after Jason Collins came out as a gay male athlete.  While any article assessing Kluwe’s release should address his on-field performance and his outspoken nature, some writers have taken to sensationalizing Kluwe’s release and succumbed to scandal-mongering.  Case in point:  Les Carpenter, a Yahoo! “Expert,” who wrote an article entitled “Chris Kluwe’s Release By Vikings Sends Message That Gay-Marriage Talk is Not Tolerable in NFL.”  (Jen Floyd Engel posted a similarly themed article on Fox Sports.)

Please allow me to borrow from the Fire Joe Morgan format to address Carpenter’s irresponsible article.

The great threat to the fabric of football did not brandish an arsenal of guns when I met Chris Kluwe in his living room in the fall of 2011. He didn’t swill whiskey as we drove to his band’s practice. Nor did he store PEDs in his refrigerator, instead opting for piles of fruit and a carton of milk. His television was off as it often is because – gasp – Kluwe likes to read.

Ok.  This is kind of a clunky lede but nothing too horrible here.  I assume that the “arsenal of guns” comment is a reference to the Men’s Journal article about James Harrison (Confessions of an NFL Hitman).  I am against drinking and driving and PEDs and enjoy reading, so I am fine with the next two sentences.  I guess I see what the author is attempting to do here.  He’s trying to show that Chris Kluwe is not the typical football player.   But, he is a punter.  So, doesn’t the reader already know that?  I am a little hazy on what is meant by the phrase “fabric of football,” but this is perhaps Carpenter’s attempt to “hook” us into reading on.

All of which makes the Minnesota Vikings’ release of Kluwe on Monday more perplexing. 

This is where he loses me, sentence four.  Why would any of the foregoing purported facts make the release of a football player perplexing?  None of the stated facts about Kluwe have anything whatsoever to do with his on-field performance or salary cap implications, which are usually the predominant issues related to a player’s release.

For eight years, Kluwe was the team’s punter. 

This is true.

In fact he had been a very effective punter, deadening his kicks as if his leg was a 9-iron. He was a sure-handed holder on field goals and extra points, invisible in the way you want your holder to be. And given the trouble teams have in finding gifted punters and dependable holders, it seemed he would remain the Vikings’ punter for a long, long time.

I love this paragraph.  Kluwe is first hailed as a “very effective punter,” but aside from an awkward simile, the author provides no statistics or other evidence of Kluwe’s alleged effectiveness.  By the end of the paragraph, Kluwe is not just an effective punter but is also being described as a “gifted punter.”  There is a difference here.  Brett Gardner is an effective base stealer; Ricky Henderson is a gifted one.  Whether Kluwe is “effective” or “gifted,” we, as readers, just have to take Mr. Carpenter’s word for this assessment as no verifiable support is provided.

The coup de gras of this paragraph, however, is the end:  “[I]t seemed he would remain the Vikings’ punter for a long, long time.”  Well, in fact, Kluwe was the Vikings punter for eight years, which in the NFL is a long time.  I have always viewed punters and place kickers in the NFL as being like closers in baseball.  There are a rare few that remain in that role for an extended period of time (Rivera, Nathan) and even the very good ones end up spending their careers on multiple team’s rosters.

But the NFL doesn’t always respect reliable players who are role models off the field. Not when those players are smart and have opinions and dare to speak those opinions on places like the Internet. In the past year, Kluwe’s activism has gone from complaints about labor issues to the third rail to sports executives: gay rights. Suddenly the skilled punter who tees the ball perfectly for his field goal kickers is the great threat to the fabric of football.

What the heck are you talking about?  The NFL didn’t cut Chris Kluwe, the Vikings did.  Also, what other “reliable players who are role models off the field” are you referring to?  Reliable players/role models such as Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, J.J. Watt…yeah, the NFL doesn’t respect these players.

Of course the Vikings, who drafted a punter in last month’s NFL draft, didn’t tell him this as they cut him Monday. Instead they gave the usual speech about wanting to go a different direction, thanking him for his service. Then he was dispatched from the Vikings’ facility without even a helmet clock to show for his eight years with the team.

True, Kluwe did not receive a helmet clock for his eight years with the team….he received over $8 million dollars for his eight years with the team.

Kluwe never asked if it was his activism that cost him his job. The Vikings never offered the thought even as the answer loomed obvious to everyone else. Two football players have spoken loud for gay rights issues in the last several months, specifically gay marriage: Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo. Both have been cut. And while you could argue Ayanbadejo was a financial casualty for a team desperate to get under the salary cap, Kluwe was a modest budget strain to the Vikings; he was scheduled to make $1.45 million in 2013. What happened to him makes little sense. Except it makes lots of sense.

Here is where my blood really boils.  Carpenter insinuates that Kluwe and Brendan Ayanbadejo were both cut because they have been outspoken advocates for gay rights.  To support this claim, Carpenter links to an article where Ayanbadejo seems to suggest that part of the reason for his release was due to his position on gay rights.  However, the reality is that Ayanbadejo is a 37 year old special teams player who was set to earn $940,000 next season on a team that has severe salary cap concerns (see trading Anquan Boldin).  Moreover, in an interview with the Baltimore Sun, Ayanbadejo was quick to clarify his comments to emphasize that the Ravens have always supported his stance and that he does not believe that his release was anything other than a business decision.

Further, Kluwe was set to make $1.45 million in 2013.  While Mr. Carpenter shrugs this off as a mere pittance, Kluwe would have been one of the top fifteen highest paid kickers in football.  Is Kluwe worth that much?  Carpenter fails to provide statistics or scouting reports regarding Kluwe’s actual performance, so we just have to take Carpenter’s word for it.

But, when one actually looks at the statistics, it reveals that Kluwe was a below average punter last season.  Although he set a career high with a 39.9 yard net average, that number ranked 18th in the league. Additionally, Kluwe ranked 31st in the league in punts downed inside the 20 yard line.   Kluwe’s subpar performance was not a one-year anomaly.  In 2011 and 2012, more than half of his punts were returned.  In 2012, only 16% percent of his punts were fair caught.  Any (or all) of these statistics are indications that Kluwe’s performance was on the decline.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever know,” he said by phone on Monday after his meetings with general manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier. “I’m not in the [organizational] meetings.”

There is an idea in football that punters should be seen and not heard. Football coaches are men who were raised as linemen and linebackers and running backs. They come from a world where the punter is an annual story in the local newspaper and not an Internet sensation doing photo shoots for Out Magazine. They despise controversy.

This is where I have a problem with Kluwe himself.   He plays the martyr card here, and it is not becoming.  Just prior to his release, Kluwe emphasized the cross he bears:  “I think the sacrifice would be worth it.  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.”  He also stated, “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.”

In fact, Kluwe implied that his release would discourage other NFL players from speaking out on gay rights unless he was able to find a new team:  “It’s really going to depend on whether we are able to find work.  If we’re not, then people are probably going to draw the logical conclusion. That will happen. I would hope the NFL isn’t an organization that will allow something like that to happen.”

Come on!  Have you seen your statistics?  Isn’t it possible likely that your release was simply a football decision.  The combination of an aging player, high salary, and diminished performance usually translates into a release.  This is especially true with a position that normally has a high turnover rate, like punter.  NFL veterans get cut every year in favor of cheaper draft picks.

Aside from that, the fact that Kluwe has insinuated that his release was, in any way, due to his advocacy for gay rights is disheartening.  Kluwe and Ayanbadejo have both been outspoken in their support of gay rights and have, hopefully, made it possible for other players to follow suit.  However, in order to continue paving the way for more players to advocate for gay rights and eventually for there to be openly gay players in the NFL, Kluwe should have made clear (as Ayanbadejo did) that his advocacy for gay rights did not cause his release.   NFL players should be encouraged to be themselves and to speak out in support of what they believe.  Demonstrating that advocating for your beliefs does not have an adverse effect on your career would be a step in the right direction.  Therefore, to continue the march forward, Kluwe should have followed Ayanbadejo’s lead and say that he believed the Vikings when they told him his release was a business decision, rather than blaming his release on the fact that he supports gay rights.

As he pondered his release, Kluwe seemed to understand he is somehow now the great threat to the fabric of football. Yet he also wondered why principles are vices. Aren’t you supposed to speak against wrongs? The reaction to the gay-marriage issue always seemed strange to him. Football players aren’t sitting in locker rooms worrying who among them might be gay.

“Just as someone isn’t going to ask me about what I did with my wife last night I’m not going to ask someone what he did with his husband,” Kluwe said.

He paused.

“When I’m in the locker room and around the team, I’m 100 percent football,” he said. “I’ve always been very fair with my tweets. I never say anything to denigrate the team.”

Again, this “fabric of football” thing is addressed.  I still don’t get it.  Is Carpenter suggesting that a founding principle of football is anti-gay?  And Kluwe was released because he is the “great threat” to this principle?”  This is just a little too much hyperbole.  Scott Fujita is also an outspoken advocate of gay marriage.  Why was he permitted to retire on his own terms?

It’s notable that the irony of these sentences is completely lost on Carpenter.  Carpenter relates Kluwe’s belief that football players do not sit around locker rooms worrying about who might be gay and that Kluwe is “100 percent football” when in uniform.  However, in his article, Carpenter is suggesting that the Vikings’ decision to cut Kluwe was related solely to his gay rights advocacy and not based on “100 percent football” reasons.  This is why I have a major problem with this article.  It never attempts to legitimately assess Kluwe’s on-field performance or even consider that Kluwe’s release may be based on his performance as a football player. Compare Carpenter’s slanted article with the well-thought out article written by Kevin Seifert over at ESPN.  To be fair, any article addressing Kluwe’s release must address his outspokenness as well as his performance.

Still, the Vikings seemed threatened by Kluwe over the past couple of years. Where coaches once praised his ability for “coverable” punts that put opponents in bad field position, they grumbled about him last season. If there was a last straw it was when he went out onto the field wearing a “Post-it” that read “Vote Ray Guy,” just days after a Yahoo! Sports story about the former Raiders punter’s quest to get in the Hall of Fame.

“Those distractions are getting old for me to be honest,” Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer told reporters at the time.

This is Carpenter taking a situation out of context.  Kluwe was reprimanded and fined by the league for wearing a sign supporting Ray Guy’s hall-of-fame candidacy on his uniform.  Mike Priefer’s comments were directly related to Kluwe’s antics on the day in question and not about his support of gay rights.  This is another aspect of the article that is bothersome.  Carpenter implies that Kluwe is only outspoken about gay rights when, in fact, Kluwe speaks his mind on numerous topics, ranging from labor issues to  the field conditions at TCF Bank Stadium.

Kluwe said Monday no one from the team complained to him about the Ray Guy sign, just as no coach or executive ever told him to back off his Internet crusades. Basically, he said, they left him alone and let him punt.

Doesn’t this statement support the notion that Kluwe was released for purely football/performance reasons?  The Vikings “left him alone and let him punt.”  In other words, the Vikings never attempted to silence him or prevent him from speaking about his beliefs.

He gave the Vikings another fine season: dropping 25 percent of his kicks inside the 20-yard line with only two touchbacks and a career-best 39.7 yard net punting average.

Finally, some statistics!  After 804 words, Carpenter finally addresses Kluwe’s on-field performance and provides some statistics in support.  Of course, as already discussed, the “career-best” net average was only good for 18th in the league.  But that doesn’t fit the theme of this article, so why bring that up?  Carpenter also cites to the fact that Kluwe landed 25% of the kicks inside the 20 to support his conclusion that Kluwe had a “fine season.”   In reality, the league leader landed 54% of his punts inside the 20 yard line. Perhaps most telling, out of 31 punters who recorded at least 50 punts last season, Kluwe’s percentage of punts landing inside the 20 ranked 30th (second to last), trailing only Mat McBriar.  (Incidentally, McBriar was cut this offseason with the Eagles issuing a press release stating that they “decided to go in a different direction.”)  Kluwe’s numbers do not look as impressive when actually put into context.

But because he is now the great threat to the social fabric of the NFL he was cut.

Actually, one could argue that he was cut as a courtesy to Kluwe.  When the Vikings drafted a punter in the fifth round (Jeff Locke), Kluwe had this to say:  “My perspective is, if that’s the direction the team wants to go, fine. Just give me the courtesy of letting me try to find a job somewhere else.”  And, the Vikings released him shortly after the draft, which should afford him a better opportunity to latch on with another squad.

No sports organization offers more contradictions than the NFL. This is a league that deemed its players’ off-field behavior a crisis in 2007, fearing advertisers might flee a sport with rising arrest records, that it created a strict player conduct policy. Yet when confronted with a skilled player coming off his best season who defends gay marriage on Twitter, the ax comes out.

I hate to get bogged down in the details here, but how can you argue with a straight face that Kluwe is “coming off his best season.”  As the statistics demonstrate, he was coming off a season that was not even mediocre.  He was decidedly below average.

. . .  

Now Kluwe leaves a city where he built a life and a career. He leaves behind his band that had become something of a hit in the Minneapolis music scene. He is going to have to find a way to keep the group together in the next city – if he is allowed a next city.

I didn’t realize that Chis Kluwe was the first player in the entire history of the NFL to be cut by a team and forced to continue his career in another city.  Also, what jerks the Vikings are for not considering the effect his release would have on Kluwe’s band!

If nothing else there is irony in the band’s name, Tripping Icarus. For Icarus was the young man from mythology who tried to leave the Island of Crete with wings made of feather and wax. As he flew he ignored the warnings of his father not to fly too close to the sun. The wax melted, the feathers came of [sic] and Icarus fell into the sea.

Much like Icarus, the man who did everything the Minnesota Vikings asked of him was cast into the sea. Apparently he too had flown too close to the sun.

This is just absurd.  Despite doing “everything the Minnesota Vikings asked of him,” Kluwe was still released?  Carpenter acts as though Kluwe is the first player in the NFL who was cut despite doing “everything” the coaches asked of him.  Um, have you ever seen Hard Knocks?  Players who work hard in camp and who do everything the coaches ask still get cut when there are more talented players on the roster.  I am pretty sure Brian Moorman did everything the Bills asked of him over the course of eleven seasons, and he was still unceremoniously dumped last season.

* * * *

The bottom line is this: any fair discussion of Kluwe’s release must address both his outspoken views as well as his on-field performance.  Carpenter’s article is not a fair discussion as he never even considers the possibility that Kluwe’s release was motivated by anything other than his support of gay rights.    The article starts with the presumption that Kluwe was cut for this reason, and then Carpenter cherry-picks facts and takes statistics out of context in order to support his preconceived view.  There are no facts or quotes from scouts or personnel to support this contention.  It’s simply surmise, conjecture, and scandal-mongering.

Ostensibly, articles like Carpenter’s appear to be supporting gay rights.  But, the truth is that such articles are actually setting back the cause.  If every time a roster decision is made involving a player who supports gay rights (or, eventually, who is gay), the media submits slanted and sensationalized articles claiming that the team’s decision was motivated solely by that player’s views or sexual orientation, what message does this send to the league?  Teams aren’t going to be worried about having a gay player in the locker room; they are going to be worried about the media backlash that would follow any personnel decision involving a gay player.

Furthermore, given all the progress that society in general – and sports specifically – has made with gay rights, it is sad to see  writers exploiting this issue for page clicks.  Players like Kluwe and Ayanbadejo should be commended for speaking out in support of the principles that they believe in and for, hopefully, helping to cultivate an environment in professional sports where a player’s sexual orientation is no longer an issue and players feel comfortable to be who they are.  However, the waters get muddied if every evaluation of these players revolves around their advocacy.  Ultimately, whether Kluwe, Ayanbedejo, or any other athlete makes a professional sports team should be based upon that player’s performance on the field.  Isn’t  this the whole idea of equality?  Players should be judged based on their talent and abilities, not their sexual orientation.