In a corporate sports world dominated by controversy-averse players giving boilerplate non-answers, Chris Kluwe is a glimmering sparklepony of candor. The Minnesota Vikings punter is best known for his now-infamous letter to a same-sex-marriage opponent in the Maryland General Assembly, assuring Delegate Everett C. Burns Jr. that gay people "won't turn you into a lustful cockmonster."
Kluwe's devastating takedown, posted on the Gawker sports blog Deadspin in September, generated 2.3 million pageviews and launched the 31-year-old into a new stratosphere of visibility. So much for the stereotypically lonely kicker: Kluwe now has nearly 150,000 Twitter followers (his handle, @ChrisWarcraft, is a nod to his gaming habit) and was even named Salon's Sexiest Man of the Year.
While Kluwe's marriage diatribe prompted some homophobic trolling, he says the response to it and his other outspoken opinions on climate change, corporate responsibility, and "stupidity in general" has been overwhlemingly positive, even in hostile territory. "We were at Green Bay," he says, recalling pregame warm-ups in a nearly empty Lambeau Field. "All of a sudden I hear from the stands: 'Chris Kluwe, I love your politics!'"
Yet even internet celebs aren't immune to their boss' grumbling: In mid-December, the Vikings' special-teams coach complained that the punter was becoming a distraction. Asked if he'd approached Kluwe, the coach responded, "Nah. He don't listen."
Here's Kluwe doing his thing on the January 8 episode of The Colbert Report:
Mother Jones: What first prompted you to dive into the marriage-equality debate?
Chris Kluwe: Minnesotans for Equality. One of the people involved with them had been following me for a while on Twitter and figured I would help them out in terms of defeating the amendment, and so I said, "Yeah, that sounds like a great thing." There's no reason to enshrine discrimination into a state constitution.
MJ: How did you go from there to writing your infamous letter to Del. Burns, who had urged the Baltimore Ravens to rein in a player's public advocacy of same-sex marriage?
CK: I remember looking at Del. Burns' letter to the Ravens somewhat late at night, and I thought to myself, "That's really fucked up, not just from a same-sex marriage perspective, but from a First Amendment perspective—that an elected US official is trying to use that office to stifle someone's free speech." I had practice in the morning, but I literally could not sleep because I kept thinking about this letter and I knew I had to counter it. So I got my laptop, wrote up a reply—the now infamous letter—and sent it off to the guys at Deadspin. Then I slept like a baby.
MJ: Was the response everything from pure hate to pure love?
CK: Actually, it was very surprising. On Twitter, the vast majority of replies were, "Way to go!" I know how awful people can get on the internet because I've been awful on the internet at times, so it really surprised me that of the 6,000 or 7,000 mentions, only 5 or 6 were negative, you know, "Hey, faggot, you suck. Go to hell."
"It really surprised me that of the 6,000 or 7,000 Twitter mentions, only 5 or 6 were negative, you know, 'Hey, faggot, you suck. Go to hell.'"
MJ: So what's the atmosphere like in the NFL these days—do you think players care if someone is gay?
CK: I can't see into their minds. If I had to guess, I would say the majority of guys probably don't even worry about it. Especially the younger generation, they realize that, hey, how someone else lives their life doesn't affect my life. And there's a lot more tolerance, a lot more respect. That being said, there's definitely still a culture of gay slurs being used to taunt people and make fun of people—that still goes on in a lot of societies and cultures in America. But I've definitely noticed it receding in the sports world.
MJ: How have fans reacted to you since the letter?
CK: I haven't had anyone say anything negative to me. I've had players from other teams come up to me and say, "Great job, we think you did the right thing." I think there really is a culture shift starting to happen.
MJ: Speaking of that, there seems to be a real hunger for athletes speaking their minds. But not many do. What do you make of that?
CK: As athletes, we are encouraged to not say a whole lot because that can hurt the team. It's something we all learn. It generally starts in college, and then it's definitely in the pros. You don't want to give other teams bulletin-board material. You have to be very careful, very measured with your answers, and that's why you hear a lot of the same clichés coming out time after time.
MJ: It seems like athletes are missing an opportunity to present themselves as human beings.
CK: Again, the problem is that if you do it too much, you run the risk of becoming a distraction. And then the team can use that as a way of saying, "Okay, you're hurting the team—we're going to get rid of you." That's what it really comes down to. In the NFL, it's so hard to reach that level and so hard to keep your job. A lot of guys, they don't want to risk it. And I can respect that because that's food on the table. That's the livelihood of your family. I am fully aware of risk I run with the way I post on Twitter and stuff like that. For me, I'm comfortable in who I am and I enjoy playing football a lot, but once I'm done playing football then I'll go find something else—football doesn't define me as a human being.
MJ: Is that risk of becoming a distraction higher for kickers, given their perceived outsider status?
CK: I talk with everyone, I know all the guys, I'm just as much a member of the team as they are, and they know that. Because if I have a bad punt, that can affect the team's chances of winning just as much as if we have a fumble or an interception. Guys realize if someone is contributing, there's no reason to break them down because that's going to hurt your chances to win. If you don't win, guys are going to lose their jobs.
MJ: And football has gotten so specialized.
CK: Exactly. Before practice when we're going through our warm-ups, you'll see guys come out and try and kick the ball, and they'll say, "Hey, that's a lot harder than I thought it would be." I tell them, "Just like I can't play your position, odds are pretty low that you can play my position."
MJ: Yeah, I sort of gathered that you didn't agree with the former NFL player Nate Jackson, who wrote a Deadspin column during the labor dispute attacking you as this sort of bottom-rung nobody who should keep his mouth shut.
CK: [Laughs.] I would have hoped Nate would have known better because he was a career special-teams player! I think he wanted to play into that popular stereotype, "Hey, it's the lonesome kicker—no one really cares about him." He didn't really reckon on me writing a column in return. It's tough to sling mud at someone when you're not really secure in your own position.
MJ: A lot of people read that exchange. What prompted you to go nuclear?
"Who doesn't like a creative insult?...There is something almost sublimely funny about seeing a really clever mash-up of swear words that you wouldn't normally expect."
CK: Well, my writing career was primarily born from the World of Warcraft realm forums, where if you go after someone, you'd better make sure you've got your ducks in a row or they're going to come right back at you. When I saw his column I laughed because (a) it was pretty funny; he had some good lines in there; and (b) this is exactly how I'd been writing for the last like four years because I'd been playing WoW. And I was like, well, if you want to get into this arena, I am more than well versed in how to battle. I started browsing the forums to just kind of entertain myself, and I noticed that you could get some pretty funny conversations going if you knew how to write. For me it was about, okay, if I want to call someone out, the only way to do so without being ignored is to craft a completely logical argument that has a hook. And for me that was creative insults—because who doesn't like a creative insult?
MJ: So that's how expressions like "beautifully unique sparklepony" and "lustful cockmonster" came into being?
CK: Right, exactly: through a seething pit of ignoramuses, born of misspoken children on the internet.
MJ: How much of your writing is spontaneous?
CK: Generally I put down whatever I'm thinking, and then I'll go back and edit, but I'd say the vast majority of my writing, if it's not coming to me right away then I'm probably not going to bother. Insults usually take a little bit more thinking, because I try not to repeat myself. If you work at it, you can almost turn it into an art form, because there is something almost sublimely funny about seeing a really clever mash-up of swear words that you wouldn’t normally expect.
MJ: What are your favorites?
CK: I think "lustful cockmonster" probably ranks in the top five. It really does give you a sense of just this angry little penis running at you.