Notables at The Nomad with Dessa and Vikings’ punter Chris Kluwe.
According to the New York Times, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe is “the most interesting man in the NFL.” The press is magnetized to him, usually portraying him as the guy who violates our every expectation of a pro athlete. He’s a gay rights advocate; he reads hard books; he plays in Tripping Icarus, a gigging rock band; he raises money for Duchenne muscular dystrophy; he’s an avid gamer. Whereas most human anomalies fascinate us because they demonstrate some extreme—the contortionist, the speedreader, the legless beauty—Kluwe is a celebrity, in part, for being well-rounded. In the rush of recent coverage, one can almost hear the hawker’s pitch: COME SEE THE INCREDIBLY BALANCED MAN.
On the field, he wears number 5. In the band, he plays bass. In World of Warcraft he’s a troll named Loate. At home, he’s got a wife and two kids. In person he’s lean, laughs readily, and wears sandals in cold weather. He’s in the middle of Atlas Shrugged at the moment, but he’s unlikely to get all Paul Ryan about it—he’s become the celebrity spokesman for same-sex marriage in Minnesota.
If you missed it, here’s the story made short: A player for the Ravens named Brendon Ayanbadejo stood up publicly to support gay marriage. A Maryland legislator asked the Ravens to muzzle their man. Kluwe wrote a blistering response to said legislator, arguing that Brendon has first amendment rights, just like the next guy. The letter was razor sharp, profane, smart alecky—a total, unequivocal diss. When it was posted online, one million dudes in one million rolly chairs pushed back from their desks yelling, “Ohhhhh shit!” Boom. Kluwe is informally appointed as the NFL spokesperson for gay rights, the first amendment, political awareness, intellectualism, and books. Suddenly, Kluwe’s call log doesn’t have any vowels in it: CNN, NYT, NPR, BBC–all go nuts. And #5 goes from football-famous to all-purpose famous.
Kluwe is a sugar fiend, so I brought some Mike and Ikes to our meeting at the Nomad. (Suggested pairing: Hopquila—at least that’s what we were drinking.)
Dessa: What’s the weirdest thing that you have been asked to sign?
Chris Kluwe: “Um, probably a baby.”1
D: Is there pressure to live, eat, sleep football?
CK: That’s kind of the macho jock stereotype. From what I’ve seen in the NFL, the vast majority of football players are just like anyone else. They studied various subjects in college. There are a lot of really smart guys in the NFL, there are a lot of really dumb guys in the NFL. It’s a cross section of society that happens to do an athletic ability very, very well.
D: Why Duchenne?
CK: “One of my friends asked if I was donating to any charities and I said, ‘No but we’re looking for one….’ I feel we do have a responsibility to give back to the community at large because we get paid ridiculous amounts of money to play a children’s game…Really how much do you need? Once you go pass 200, 300K you got everything you could ever want.”
D: Have you had this conversation with your cohorts, with your teammates?
CK: “Oh yeah, they think I’m a communist.”
D: What would you say to someone who says there’s an obligation for civility in public discourse?
CK: “Sometimes there’s a place for civility. And sometimes there’s a place to tell someone to go fuck themselves.”
Kluwe’s had a lot of practice talking about the case for gay marriage, he does so in an even tone, with polished arguments. The topic that elicits the most heated response from Kluwe is actually ball grease. If there’s one thing that Kluwe hates more than institutionalized oppression, it may well be ball grease—the slick coating on new footballs. In 1999, the NFL made a rule that kickers and punters had to use brand new, absolutely virginal footballs. Game officials would receive these new k balls in sealed containers straight from the Wilson factory, not to be opened before the game. All this fuss stemmed from the concern that teams were abusing the balls beforehand to make them more pliable—even microwaving them to achieve the perfect foot-friendly give.2
Ball grease makes footballs, well, greasy. And greasy hands don’t drop balls consistently for good punting. “What they’re looking for in the NFL is consistency,” sayeth Kluwe, “They want 40 to 45 yards with about 4.5 seconds of hangtime.” But drop the ball too far inside and you’ll likely get “one of those tail-dragging punts that goes about 35 yards.” Drop it too far outside, it’ll go short or out of bounds. “And the difference between those two scenarios and hitting a perfect punt is usually like an inch either way.”
Predictably, special teams guys hated this 1999 rule. But it took more then their complaints to change it. “When Tony Romo dropped the snap3, that was because they were using a brand new k ball. After he complained about it—kickers have been complaining about it for a couple of years—after a quarterback complained about it, they let our equipment guys start breaking them in.” Now team staff have 45 precious minutes to try and render the k balls a little more forgiving and a little less slick.
Quarterbacks complain about ball grease and the punters get a break. A punter complains about marriage inequality hoping to help out the gay community. In the sports world, Kluwe may be reshaping an impression of same-sex marriage. But, all told, the Kluwe Effect may have less to do with how jocks think about gays and more to do with how the rest of us think about football players. It turns out that our imaginations of the locker room may be more meatheaded and less progressive than the 2012 reality. And we like being proved wrong; Kluwe’s awash in requests to appear on the radio, TV, and even in glossy magazine spreads. Championing gay rights, he’s re-branding the league. The NFL may want consistency, but the country seems to be enjoying the surprise.
1 Forehead. Yes, in Sharpie.
2 This microwave stuff is often waved off as nonsense, but if it’s just a rumor, it’s not the most extreme of them. Some stories include days of ball conditioning: inflating, deflating, abrading, laundering, and soaking.
3 A famous, head-in-your-hands, never-live-it-down moment. Highlight of the lowlight reel.