Former NFL player Chris Kluwe took the stage at the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program’s 2017 Project Play Summit to discuss the rise of esports and how best to get kids interested in more traditional organized sports. Afterward he spared some time to answer our questions about athlete activism, NFL culture, and the saga of Colin Kaepernick, who has yet to be signed by an NFL team after protesting during the national anthem and speaking out against police violence and racism last season. Kluwe was outspoken in his support for same-sex marriage during his football career, and he thinks that activism may have led to the loss of his punting job four years ago. He had a lot to say about being an activist in the NFL, the difficulties facing Kaepernick, and what he wishes fans understood about why players stand up for what they believe in.
Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like speaking up politically as a professional athlete?
Speaking up politically as a professional athlete is something I wish more professional athletes did. I understand why they don’t. One look at what Colin Kaepernick is going through and what I ended up having to go through four years ago, is there’s a risk because the professional sports world wants to be a very corporate world. It wants to be, “Don’t offend anyone. Go out, sell jerseys, sell shoes. Make sure the fans come back for this game and the next game.”
And I think that’s unfortunate because the framework that sports is built on is our societal framework, and if our societal framework breaks down because people are denied their rights and are not allowed to experience life the same way as everyone else then there won’t be that framework for sports. And it doesn’t matter how many stadiums you have or how many jerseys you’ve sold — none of it means anything anymore because people are focused on getting food and shelter and trying to survive. So, I would say to any corporate sports person who might possibly be watching this, take a moment and think about the society that allows you to exist and maybe do things that perpetuate that society instead of tearing it down.
It seems like those challenges are somewhat more present in the NFL than, let’s say, the NBA. What is it about the NFL that you think makes it harder to speak out?
The NFL is probably harder to speak out in for a couple of reasons. One is the players union is the weakest players union out of the four major sports. And that’s because there are so many players. It’s very hard to get 1,800 players to organize and work in unison, especially if those players have a limited career span. On average, they’re going to play three, three and a half years. If you have to give up a year of your playing career, 33 percent of your potential earnings, to go on strike, that’s a pretty hefty sacrifice. Now hopefully guys will do that in order to make changes, but I can understand why they don’t.
The second problem with the NFL is that the majority of the owners are rich, old white guys and they have very specific points of view that might have been points of view in the 50s and 60s, but are not necessarily great points of view in our modern society. So, until people with those viewpoints either cycle out or are replaced with someone with more progressive points of views, then it’s going to be hard to effectuate any sort of change.
It seems like there are more players who are willing to protest and speak up right now. Do you think that’s been the trend?
I think a lot more players have been willing to speak out and protest because they understand that they have a lot to lose. And they’re starting to understand that there’s safety in numbers. If there’s just a lone voice speaking out, it’s very easy to quash that voice, but if there are multiple voices speaking out, then there’s strength in numbers and it becomes very obvious at that point that what the league is doing is trying to silence players from speaking out on social issues.
In my case it was, “Oh here’s just a punter who’s speaking out on same-sex rights. Well, we can cut him and a lot of people will accept the fact that it was due to his play performance dropping or it saved us some money.” But when you have someone like Colin Kaepernick get cut for speaking out on police brutality, not getting picked up by any other teams, you see all these other quarterbacks get picked up by those teams that are clearly worse than he is and now other players are speaking up on that, all of a sudden it makes it a lot harder for those same excuses to be made because people see through the charade, they see through the lies. They’re like, “No. This isn’t why he’s not playing anymore. He’s not playing because he spoke up on this issue that needs to be addressed and you don’t want us to talk about it.” And so hopefully that drives a lot of people to continue talking about it and make some change.
How important is it for the league for Colin Kaepernick to be speaking out the way he is?
I think it’s very important for Colin Kaepernick to be speaking up the way he is because he’s a role model. He is someone that hundreds of thousands of kids and adults look up to and will model their behavior after. He has the stage, he has the platform. And by using it to try to make society a better and fairer place, then that helps other people realize, “Hey I can do the same thing. I can work towards positive change in my community. I can work towards positive change in my society. I’m not the only one who feels this way.” And the more of us that do that, the healthier our society becomes, the more likely it is to withstand the test of time.
What do you wish that people, especially everyday fans, understood about what you went through four years ago and what Kaepernick is going through now?
What I wish that everyday fans understood about what I went through and what Kaepernick is going through now is that when someone tells you that something is happening, odds are they’re probably not lying about it, specifically as it relates to an NFL job where there’s really no incentive for us to make things up and tell you that there’s a problem that doesn’t exist. If we’re telling you that there’s a problem, that problem does exist and it needs to be addressed.
I wish more fans understood that sports were secondary to human life and human society, and that, in the grand scheme of things, sports really don’t matter. What matters is how you are as a human being, how you treat the human beings around you. That’s what’s important. So, any athlete who speaks up on that I think is doing a very helpful service to society at large and to everyone around them.
This interview has been edited for style and clarity.