Last week, former NFL punter Chris Kluwe and the Minnesota Vikings reached a settlement of Kluwe’s dispute with the team over what he characterized as the organization’s homophobic environment and release from the team due to his activism on behalf of marriage equality.
Kluwe’s revelation of serious homophobic behavior and an institutional attempt to freeze him out of the team and, ultimately, his release created a firestorm of media coverage and an investigation into the behavior by special-teams coordinator Mike Priefer. Kluwe went public in his allegation on January 2nd and made specific allegations about the comments and behaviors of several Minnesota Vikings coaches and front office personnel. The settlement, which includes an initial $100,000.00 contribution to charities supporting the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities, puts aside Kluwe’s demand for the full disclosure of an independent investigation into his release and the impact his political activities had on his job. The settlement also appears to include Kluwe’s waiver of any other liability he may seek against the Vikings in the form of a threatened wrongful termination suit.
After Kluwe’s allegations to Deadspin, the Vikings launched an independent investigation to determine the veracity of his comments and ultimately released a small portion (29 pages) of the report in July. The truncated report appeared to give some credence to Kluwe’s allegations, but also demonstrated that Kluwe’s May 2013 release from the team was motivated by performance, rather than his political beliefs and efforts. Kluwe made a public demand for the full-release of the report, citing a promise made to him by the Vikings, however, after reviewing the full-report with counsel, Kluwe and the Vikings restarted settlement negotiations.
Though the terms are reported to be confidential, Kluwe commented that his main concern was to see whether there was a “systematic problem in the Vikings organization” and having reviewed the report, he accepts that wasn’t the case. In addition to the financial and charitable aspect of the settlement, the Vikings also plan to enhance sensitivity training in the organization. Kluwe confirmed he will not receive any money from the Vikings. Separately, the Vikings had previously announced a three-game suspension of coach Mike Priefer and a week of sensitivity training, though that suspension can be shorted to two-games if the team finds it appropriate.
This settlement eliminates what would have been an intriguing legal issue for professional sports: termination (release) due to political activities. Kluwe had made comments about suing the Vikings for religious discrimination, sexual orientation discrimination, defamation, and tortious interference of contract. Tortious interference of contract, a legal concept by which a third party intentionally induces a contracting party to break the contract, would have been particularly interesting in the context of professional sports where any number of reasons could result in a player’s release.
Kluwe’s threat of a lawsuit on those grounds created very little leverage, if any. Even if the report did not reveal performance issues or an allegation of Kluwe’s own embarrassing behavior, settlement was likely a foregone conclusion in this case.
The reality is that the likelihood of success of any lawsuit Kluwe would have filed would have been low. NFL teams and the NFL Players Association have a collective bargaining agreement and procedure for bringing grievances, including those over the release of a player. Kluwe never filed a grievance with his union over his release and it is unlikely that the union could stop a team from releasing a player due to political activities, speech, or religious beliefs (or lack thereof).
In the final analysis, Kluwe’s allegations and settlement reached by the Vikings will prove to have an overall positive effect. Charities benefit from the contributions made by the Vikings and the punishment of a coach which will hopefully deter players and coaches from engaging in such behavior in the future (though Michael Sam making the Rams roster will probably go further than any mandatory sensitivity training).