If you're a Vikings fan, you remember former punter Chris Kluwe, but not for his 45-foot arcs. Instead, you probably remember that he relentlessly defended same-sex marriage through Tweets, letters to elected officials, and, eventually, national media appearances. But while Ellen Degeneres greeted him with fanfare, his media darling status didn't sit well with the coaching staff. Now Kluwe, a straight 32-year-old, is saying he's "pretty confident" he was fired for his activism.
Yesterday, sports blog Deadspin published Kluwe's own detailed account of the tense meetings leading up to the April draft, when he was replaced with a fifth-round-pick punter. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, general manager Rick Spielman, and head coach Leslie Frazier had all requested at some point that he "be quiet" and "fly under the radar" -- requests with which he did not comply. Yet he claims they never tried to stop him from staging another protest, (this one about the NFL refusing to admit punters to the Hall of Fame) for which he paid a fine. Kluwe also recalls how Priefer would use homophobic and hateful language in his presence. In conclusion, he believes it wasn't his hangtime that ultimately severed him from the team, but his "habit" of speaking his mind.
Kluwe is not the only player whose publicly-held opinions have worried the league. In fact, the California native first gained notoriety after defending Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who had released a YouTube video asking Marylanders to support gay marriage. In response, a Maryland lawmaker wrote a letter imploring Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to "inhibit such expressions from [his] employee." (Kluwe's response to that Maryland lawmaker is here. It contains some naughty language -- just a heads up).
I couldn't help but connect Kluwe's firing to a bunch of other sackings that were solely based on expression of opinions and/or politics (Scroll down to see a list). Of course, since most employment in the United States is "at will," these firings are legal.
Despite the legality of the practice, Professor of Sociology and Management at Vanderbilt University Bruce Barry reminds us that the law doesn't require employers to take action. In fact, he thinks they've been conditioned to do so.
In 2007, Barry penned a book entitled, Speechless: The Erosion of Free Expression in the American Workplace. He points to a few trends that have bred a climate of lower tolerance, including -- surprise! -- social media, blogging, and the Internet in general. Though the content of our discourse hasn't really changed, the Internet makes them "permanently archived, searchable, and actionable." At the same time, companies are becoming more protective of their brands. (And the NFL is the ultimate brand, isn't it?) The decline of job security and stability, along with waning union membership, are other factors that contribute to the relative riskiness of free expression.
Barry believes the erosion of free speech in the workplace has broader consequences -- that it creates a "chilling" effect on society as a whole. In an interview with Vanderbilt, Barry says, "Freedom of speech... is something you do after work, on your own time, and even then (for many), only if your employer approves... it's harmful for the health of democracy."
So, how can we preserve a climate of free and open discourse? Barry thinks the key lies with the employer, who may only think of work as a two-sided labor transaction:
"Employers would do well to change their mindset a bit and to understand that this... transaction actually exists within a broader society -- a free society, a democratic society where employees have lives as civic participants. It's unrealistic to expect employees to check their citizenship at the door when the enter."