Ex-NFL Player Speaks Out About Gender And Manliness

What does it mean to be a man in the 21st century? You might not expect the most inclusive or thoughtful answer from a guy who spent eight years with the National Football League. Chris Kluwe, however, has made a habit of defying stereotypes.

While a punter with the Minnesota Vikings, Kluwe spoke out in favour of marriage equality when the state was considering a 2012 measure to recognise only heterosexual unions. Gay marriage is now legal in Minnesota, and Chris Kluwe is now off the Vikings team. He doesn’t mince words in his account of that time on the website Deadspin, entitled “I Was an NFL Player Until I Was Fired by Two Cowards and a Bigot.

Today Kluwe is an author and stay-at-home dad to two daughters with a new science fiction book coming out early next year. He weighed in on the topic of modern manhood during a salty, not entirely friendly discussion panel on Explorer. Kluwe talks more about where he’s coming from in the Q&A below.

HOW DID YOU END UP SPEAKING OUT ABOUT GAY RIGHTS AND GENDER?

I never really imagined myself in this position. Growing up, as my views evolved and changed, I would talk about it with family and friends but never really on a broad national scale. It wasn’t until I got involved with Minnesotans for Marriage Equality during 2012 that I realised I actually had a platform and I could say something that people would want to listen to.

DO YOU THINK THE SPORT OF FOOTBALL AS IT STANDS NOW HAS A PLACE IN THE KIND OF CULTURE YOU WANT TO SEE? IF NOT, WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE?

I think sports should always be a place where athletes can talk about important social issues, because that’s what sports has always been. When you look at the history of discrimination in this country and racial inequality, a lot of sports figures have led the discussion there. I think a big part of it is because athletes do have a platform. We are regarded as role models. When we say something, if it’s well thought out—or even if it’s not well thought out—people tend to listen. So I think that we should use that force to help people, as opposed to trying to limit the rights of others.

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE YOUR DAUGHTERS TO LEARN ABOUT WHAT BEING A MAN MEANS?

I want them to be able to live their lives without worrying that someone is going to harm them simply because of who they are. Unfortunately, that’s a sad reality in our world today, that women are frequently mistreated simply for being women. That’s been ingrained in our history as a species going back for a very long time and we need to work on changing it, because women are 50 percent of the population. Just like I don’t think discriminating against gay people is OK, I don’t think discriminating against 50 percent of the population is OK. That’s not something a stable society does.

WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED BEING A STAY-AT-HOME DAD?

It’s something I think more people wish they could do because you’re more involved in your child’s life, but unfortunately we don’t really seem to value that as highly as we could as a society. A big part of that is a lot of guys [saying,] “You’re the stay-at-home dad, what does that make you? You’re not a man.”

No, you absolutely are a man. You’re contributing to your family, you’re helping raise your children, and you’re taking care of a lot of little mundane everyday chores that, if they’re not taken care of, tend to cause things to fall apart. So it is a job just like any other job.

DURING THE ELECTION, THE SUBJECT OF “LOCKER ROOM TALK” CAME UP, AFTER DONALD TRUMP DISMISSED COMMENTS ABOUT WOMEN ON A VIDEO. I’M WONDERING WHAT YOUR EXPERIENCE OF THAT WAS IN PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL.

As someone who’s been in professional locker rooms for a large part of my adult life, I can confidently say that no one ever talked like that. That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with misogyny in locker rooms, because there are: You have guys that don’t treat women respectfully or the right way. But at the same time, no one ever bragged about committing sexual assault. That, I think, is really an issue that people unfortunately seem willing to look past.

This wasn’t just saying, oh, I’d like to go out with that girl, or I’d like to sleep with her. It was, I sexually assaulted someone. That’s not OK. To have someone like that in the ultimate position of power in our country sets a very unfortunate role model for any kids who are watching—especially male kids, because they look at what Trump said and they say, well, if the president said that and got away with it, why can’t I do the same thing? For female children, they look at it like, am I safe? Do I have to worry about someone doing these things that he said, because he’s the president now?

THE NEW YORK TIMES RECENTLY FEATURED AN ARTICLE ABOUT A MAN WHO IS CREATING A “PLAYBORHOOD” FOR HIS KIDS, AND PART OF THE STORY WAS THE IDEA THAT BOYS ARE BEING “DEPRIVED OF MASCULINE EXPERIENCES.” I WONDER WHETHER YOU THINK THERE ARE ANY NEGATIVES ABOUT THE WAY BOYHOOD COULD CHANGE IN THE EFFORT TO MAKE MEN MORE “SENSITIVE” OR HAVE OTHER QUALITIES THAT HAVE TYPICALLY BEEN CONSIDERED FEMININE.

It’s interesting that everyone is worried about, oh, is this changing how boys grow up. No one ever asks, is this changing how girls grow up? Does this mean that girls are treated better, because boys now understand that their words have consequences and their actions have meaning? It’s always well, what if boys can’t do everything they that want anymore. Really, that kind of gets at the heart of the entire problem. For so long, the status quo has been, boys can do whatever they want and women just have to put up with it. Honestly, that’s what we need to change.

I think that there is a place on playgrounds for kids to experiment in dangerous situations, as long as they don’t die, right? I think it’s OK for kids to fall over and get scrapes and bruises, because that way you learn something about yourself. You learn something about the world around you. But I don’t think that is inherently a male thing. That is a childhood thing. Every child should have access to that, just as every child should be taught that other people’s feelings matter. Other people matter.

Every person should have the chance to live their own life, no matter your race, no matter your gender, no matter your sexuality, no matter your religious preference. All that matters is that we all have the same opportunity. If we don’t all have the same opportunities, we should be working to ensure that everyone does.

Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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