Editor's note: Chris Kluwe's first book, Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, is out June 25.
In a corporate sports world dominated by controversy-averse players giving boilerplate non-answers, Chris Kluwe is a glimmering sparklepony of candor. The former Minnesota Vikings and current Oakland Raiders 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.
MJ: Given the recent murder-suicide by NFL player Jovan Belcher, do you think the league needs to do a better job on things like domestic-violence outreach?
CK: Not necessarily. I mean we have life skills meetings and outreach like that every single year during training camp. It's just like anything else; some guys won't take advantage of those resources. I think there's also a popular misconception in the NFL that if you go seek help for counseling you're going to be seen as weak, but I don't think that's the case and hopefully more guys will realize that now.
"I don't think you can change the NFL without changing society and having people value something different than watching big guys run into each other."
MJ: How about brain injuries? With all the new research coming out, what can the NFL do?
CK: The league is kind of in a no-win situation here, because what makes football so appealing to a lot of people is the inherent violence. I don't think you can change the NFL without changing society and having people value something different than watching big guys run into each other.
MJ: Is this something guys talk about in the locker room?
CK: It's more kind of gallows humor than anything else. You know, we get compensated very well because what we do is dangerous. It's less so as a punter, but for running backs and linebackers shit's on the line—they're killing their bodies in order to make their money. We recognize that, but what are you going to do? That's your job.
MJ: What can players do to protect themselves in the long-term?
CK: I think the NFL has done a lot to make sure that players will have resources after they’re done playing. We have a pretty good 401(k) plan, pretty good medical benefits, and guys are paid a pretty good amount of money. The NFL gives us financial-planning workshops; it tells us, "Hey you need to take care of the money because you're not going to be able to do this forever." And then ultimately that comes down to, do guys listen or not? A lot of the pension issues are from the guys who played in the '70s , '80s, and '90s. They are the ones that pretty much built our modern game, but they weren't getting paid for it at the time. I think those guys need to have some sort of safety net, because they didn't know a lot of what we know now in terms of concussions and traumatic injuries.
MJ: What's up with the recent NFL obsession with Adderall?
CK: For a lot of guys, it's a way to stay awake and pay attention during meetings. After three hours of running around in practice, the last thing you want to do is sit down and watch film and pay attention. Your body wants to shut down and recover. So I think for those guys it's more about trying to keep their mental edge while they're learning. Now that raises the interesting question of what do we consider a performance-enhancing drug? If it's enhancing your performance off the field in terms of film study and paying attention in meetings, do we classify it as a PED?
MJ: What do you tell kids who say they want to play pro ball?
CK: I tell them that it's a great goal, but have a backup plan. At the very least you have to get your degree from school because that will at least show people that you can finish something you set your mind to. The reality is that very few people will ever make it to the NFL. If you do make it, you've probably put in a ton of hard work and you've also probably gotten lucky. If you don't make it, that's not the end of the world. Don't let your life be defined by just one thing. You can't go through life saying, "I'm going to be a football player and that's it."
MJ: But there must be plenty of guys in the league like that.
"I think there's a small but significant percentage of guys where football is their only thing, and once they're done playing they're not really going to know what to do with themselves."
CK: I think there's a small but significant percentage of guys where football is their only thing, and once they're done playing they're not really going to know what to do with themselves. Hopefully they'll be able to find something, because otherwise you have all this free time all of a sudden and no way to spend it, and that generally leads to bad things. But I'd say that the majority of guys are really smart. It's a pretty decent cross sampling of society as whole. You have smart guys. You have stupid guys. I think most of them realize that this is not going to last forever.
MJ: If you had sons, would you want them to play football?
CK: I have two daughters. They're four and two. If I had a boy, it'd be tough. I'd say you're not going to play until high school. I don't think you learn anything in Pop Warner because your body hasn't finished growing yet. You haven't reached the maturity and the muscles and kind of the overall athleticism you're going to need to actually play football. Really, it's giving you more chances to get injured. You could play in high school if you wanted to, but be aware there are the consequences of what could happen.
MJ: Speaking of consequences, you've been tweeting a bit about warm winter temperatures in the Twin Cities. Can we expect a climate screed sometime soon?
CK: [Laughs.] Quite possibly. It's one of the things that infuriates me—people who say, "Oh, there's no climate change, just a local hot phenomenon." You can't argue with the scientific data that storms are getting more severe and droughts are getting more severe, and the planet is heating up. One of my favorite cartoons has one lecturer standing next to another lecturer saying, "What if we're all terribly wrong and we made the world a better place for no reason whatsoever?"
MJ: What else drives you nuts?
CK: Stupidity in general. Willful ignorance. Not being able to look at the long-term consequences of your actions and realizing what you do will have ripple effects down the line. It pervades everything single aspect of our society. Look at football. Football is a growing business right now and we're cutting funds to NASA and all sorts of science programs. You're telling me that us running around playing a kid's games is more important than our children learning? That, to me, is ridiculous.
MJ: So what's your likely career post-football?
CK: I have no idea. [Laughs.] Could be anything. There's a bunch of people who want me to write a book of some sort—maybe I'll become an author. Maybe I'll work at the game store I own in Southern California. Maybe I'll become an underwater basket weaver.
MJ: Okay, then what's your ideal post-football career?
CK: I'm actually probably leaning towards writer because I do it a lot anyway, and it seems much less taxing on the body than football. I haven't had a single hamstring strain writing an essay.