Chris Kluwe has punted for eight seasons for the Minnesota Vikings, but his chances of making it nine took a hit when the team drafted a punter in the NFL Draft to compete with him. Teams seldom draft punters unless it's someone expected to make the team.
In the last two days, Kluwe has given mixed messages about whether he viewed the team drafting Jeff Locke in the fifth round as a sign that he would be cut and whether his vocal support for gay rights played a role. He told Pro Football Talk:
"It's a shame that in a league with players given multiple second chances after arrests, including felony arrests, that speaking out on human rights has a chance of getting you cut," Kluwe told PFT via text message.
Kluwe gave a more nuanced answer to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which also got a response from the Vikings:
"I don't know if [being so outspoken] is the reason they drafted a punter or not," said Kluwe, who has generated national and international attention for his support of gay marriage rights. "They haven't said anything to me about it."
Asked after the draft if that was the case, Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said, "It has nothing to do with anything Chris Kluwe is off the field. When we're making decisions, we're purely making them based on trying to bring in the best competition possible. This was just another normal personnel move. I have no issues with [Kluwe]. If Chris Kluwe wants to express his opinion, that's his right. That's his freedom of speech."
It is impossible to determine if Kluwe's activism was a reason Locke was drafted, though the team has some legitimate football reasons. For one, Locke would be cheaper -- as a fifth-rounder, he could not expect much more than $405,000 in salary this year, while Kluwe is scheduled to make $1.45 million. The team said the two would compete for the job.
As the Star-Tribune noted: "Playing through right groin and left knee injuries in 2012, Kluwe had the third highest gross average (45.0 yards) and best net average (39.9) of his eight-year career. But he also finished 31st in the league in punts inside the 20, had some uncharacteristic and ill-timed shanks, and saw the constant attention from his social activism and social media presence wear thin with the coaching staff."
Last season, the Vikings drafted kicker Blair Walsh in the sixth round to compete with veteran Ryan Longwell. Walsh won the job and went on to the Pro Bowl. The Vikings likely hope Locke will have the same success as Walsh.
Kluwe, ever his classy self, has no animosity toward Locke (a fellow UCLA alum) and told Outsports this year that football is a business and he would not be surprised to be cut in favor of someone younger and cheaper. He took to Twitter after the draft to thank his fans:
Thank you to everyone for your messages of support. I appreciate them all. Just remember, Vonnegut said it best. "So it goes." #lifegoeson
If Kluwe does get cut, he could very well wind up with another team. Punters move around a lot and some have great longevity, so if Kluwe is no longer a Viking, it doesn't mean the end of his career. And it certainly does not mean the end of his activism for gay rights. I am sure that will carry on long after he's kicked his last football.