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Robinson: The good, bad of speaking out in NFL

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There was an outcry last week when the Vikings released punter Chris Kluwe, who’s outspoken about gay rights and gay marriage.

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By Alan Robinson
Sunday, May 12, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
 

An NFL player can have an arrest record and remain in the league. He can have a conviction and remain in the league. He can have a bad reputation and remain in the league.

But can he have a strong opinion about social issues, including controversial ones that might not mesh with those of their team's fan base, and remain in the league?

That's not so black and white.

Are NFL players afraid to speak out about contentious topics? And is there retribution if they do?

“Yes and yes,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said.

There was an outcry in the media last week when the Vikings released punter Chris Kluwe, who is married with two children but is arguably the most outspoken athlete in any major pro sport about gay rights and gay marriage.

Kluwe has received multiple national awards for championing the cause of gay marriage and, following a speaking appearance before a large crowd last month at Slippery Rock, said he thinks a gay player in the NFL will come out in the near future.

“I knew it was going to be a big decision for the Minnesota Vikings because now that (NBA player) Jason Collins has come out, they're going to look like, ‘Hey, if we release him now, it's because we're tired of dealing with guys like this,' ” Davis said.

That's exactly what happened. As soon as Kluwe was released, skeptics from Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on down questioned if Kluwe was cut because of punting deficiencies — he was 22nd in the league last season with a 45.0 yards average — or his penchant for being opinionated.

“I don't feel good about it,” Dayton told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

There were similar questions raised when the Ravens cut linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo after winning the Super Bowl. However, there was less of an outcry than when Kluwe was cut because Ayanbadejo is 36, an advanced age for a linebacker whose team was 0-3 when he started last season.

Less than a year ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said it was good for players such as Kluwe and Ayanbadejo to voice an opinion on major social questions.

“I think in this day and age, people are going to speak up about what they think is important, “Goodell said. “They speak as individuals and that's an important part of democracy.”

However, Davis — a former star defensive back at Tennessee — isn't so sure that players truly believe they are free to speak their minds.

There have been instances in recent years of players being cut after being critical of their own team, such as wide receiver Randy Moss not long after he was reacquired by the Vikings from the Patriots in 2010.

So if they know better than to discuss sensitive football issues, why would players feel more comfortable raising their voice on issues they probably have far less knowledge about?

“Most guys aren't so much afraid, but (wonder), ‘What's it going to do?” Davis said. “How is it going to impact me? What would I lose by it? Would I lose my paycheck? Would I lose my position? Do I have to keep dealing with the media now?' You have to have a real conviction to jump into some of these things. Kluwe obviously has.”

However, Davis isn't convinced the Vikings shed Kluwe just because of his position on gay marriage, which, coincidentally, appears close to being legalized in Minnesota.

Kluwe was cut not long after the Vikings drafted UCLA punter Jeff Locke, who was considered by some scouts to be the premier punter in the draft.

Also, Kluwe appeared to alienate some in the Vikings organization last season with his various views. At one point, special teams coach Mike Priefer said Kluwe needed to shed his multiple distractions and focus on “punting and holding.”

Davis believes Kluwe was gone as soon as Locke was drafted, if only because the Vikings will save about $1 million a year in salary by going with a rookie punter.

“If they had an alternative, they're not going to worry about a punter,” Davis said. “Punters are weird anyway. They drafted a punter with an unbelievable leg for kickoffs. If they think they can replace him (Kluwe), well, guess what? I don't think that's retribution for having views about gay rights.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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