The Critical Mass

Your 21st century NFL

The most-important player in football today is an unemployed NFL punter.

Even if you haven’t watched a single play this season – and I’m proud to say I haven’t – you may know Chris Kluwe. He’s the Minnesota Vikings punter who was an outspoken and effective spokesman for gay rights. He took on the issue through interviews, and in a fabulous 2012 open letter written to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr. Burns had urged the Baltimore Ravens to silence one of their players, Brendon Ayanbadejo, who was campaigning on behalf of a Maryland ballot initiative that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state.

“I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of the United States government,” Kluwe writes to Burns, and the rest of us. “Your  vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.” Kluwe’s highly entertaining prose goes on to describe Burns as “Mindfuckingly, obscenely hypocritical” and a “narcissistic fromunda stain.” Read the whole thing here, it’s worth a few minutes of your time.

Kluwe is still an activist, but he’s no longer a punter. He was released by the Vikings before this season, and now Kluwe is charging the team with firing him because of his pro-gay comments. There may be some merit to his claim – he seems to have been a decent kicker on a lousy team. And punter is an important position on a lousy team. Kluwe’s also said that his special-teams coach used bigoted, anti-gay language in meetings. The Vikings have promised to investigate. Fox, check out that henhouse!

I’m not naive. I understand why guys are touchy about defining their manliness in the badass land of the NFL. The Packers’ star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, found it necessary to address Internet rumors about his sexuality a couple of days ago. “I’m just going to say, I’m not gay,” Rodgers told ESPN radio in Wisconsin. “I really, really like women. That’s all I can say about that.”

OK, Aaron. A little “not that there’s anything wrong with it…” might have helped, but we get the message.

The real message is we’ve moved on to the 21st century, and most of us are leaving behind bigotry and laws that discriminate. The polls show it. Americans are increasingly OK with gay rights, legalizing marijuana, gun control and helping the poor through unemployment benefits and by raising the minimum wage. Progressive positions.

Don’t expect institutions to lead the way. Congress, the mainstream media and even our schools tend to distance themselves from new ideas until it’s safe to proceed.

And don’t expect the NFL to lead the way, either. Not that institution, and not its fans. We witnessed that  this season with the Washington team owner’s refusal to consider changing its astonishingly racist nickname. It’s not an old debate, but it gained momentum this season. Some sportswriters are even refusing to use the name in print. Defenders of the team’s nickname simply have no answer to this question: Would you walk up to a Native American woman holding her baby and say, “My, what a cute little Redskin?”

There’s really nothing sacrosanct about a team nickname. Even one that’s been used for decades. But change comes only when the cold, dead fingers of intransigent defenders are pried loose from  their long-held beliefs. Daniel Snyder, an arrogantly entitled owner, calls his team’s racist nickname “a badge of honor,” and cites a poll showing a majority of Americans don’t want to see it changed. Well, sometimes the people are a little behind the times as well. Back in the ’60s, polls showed most Americans were against change in the civil rights laws. That’s when it really takes guts to make the right call. That’s leadership.

Here’s an idea that might help: Imagine a new team nickname and logo for Washington, and all of the official jerseys, hats, flags, kid’s bedsheets, action figures and associated sports gear that will be sold. Money. That’s something that’s always understood by the powers that be.