On January 6th, it was reported that former Minnesota Vikings punter, Chris Kluwe, retained legal counsel as the Vikings investigate allegations he made against the organization in his January 2nd Deadspin article. His lawyer is there ostensibly to assist with the investigation the Vikings are conducting into his allegations. Having read the Deadspin article and Kluwe’s allegations against former head coach, Leslie Frazier (“the Coward”), general manager, Rick Spielman (“the Coward”), and most critically, special teams coach Mike Priefer (“the Bigot”), I think Kluwe understands that his allegations and stated motivations expose him to significant legal damages. This is primarily true for his allegations against Priefer, who Kluwe labeled the “bigot” due to his alleged outspoken homophobia and attempts to ridicule Kluwe for his personal beliefs. Kluwe simply states that he hopes his story will ensure Priefer never holds another NFL coaching job.
Chris Kluwe punted in the in NFL for eight seasons, the bulk of which was with the Minnesota Vikings. Kluwe was a solid, NFL punter who prior to being released by the Vikings was reported to earn $1.45 million for the 2013 season. Kluwe’s profile rose in recent years with his outspoken support of gay and lesbian rights, particularly the right to marry which was a major political topic during his tenure in Minnesota. While he was playing for the Vikings, there was an unsuccessful attempt to ban same-sex marriage by state constitutional amendment in 2012 and, subsequently, a successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in 2013.
Kluwe was released by the Vikings in May 2013 and after a brief stint with the Oakland Raiders has been out of football. On Thursday, January 2nd, Kluwe published his account and theory behind his release on the sports website Deadspin. The article took to task an attitude of permissive homophobia Kluwe felt existed in the Viking organization and that his public support of same-sex rights directly contributed to his release from the Vikings.
Kluwe’s Deadspin article leveled its sights on three primary antagonists in the form of general manager, Rick Spielman (“The Coward”); (then) head coach Leslie Frazier (“The Coward”), and; special teams coach Mike Priefer (“The Bigot”). Kluwe’s recounting of conversations with the three, but particularly with Priefer, are embarrassing to the organization and the individuals; a public relations nightmare for an organization which has had its share of difficult situations involving off-field player incidents and questionable “football moves” such as the signing and benching quarterback Josh Freeman this season.
The comments attributed to Priefer, Kluwe’s position coach, are vile and bigoted and seemingly designed to be inflammatory towards Kluwe, personally. They were also potentially libelous if Kluwe is wrong. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “libel” as “a defamatory statement expressed in a fixed medium, esp. writing but also a picture, sign, or electronic broadcast.” It defines “defamatory statement” as “a statement that tends to injure the reputation of a person referred to in it…to cause that person to be regarded with feelings of hatred, contempt, ridicule, fear, or dislike.” Irrespective of the veracity of Kluwe’s statements, his version of Priefer’s words and world view fits snugly into the definition of “defamatory statement.”
Kluwe clearly and unambiguously states that one of his goals with coming forward with his story is that Priefer never gets another NFL coaching job. NFL teams are businesses and taken as a business, if the statements attributed to Priefer are true, then any business would be wise to distance itself from an individual who is prepared to express such intolerant opinions, particularly if they are designed to make an employee – Kluwe – uncomfortable or estranged from the organization. In the parlance of employment law, Priefer may have been creating a “hostile work environment” designed to make Kluwe quit or degrade him among his peers and the organization enough to justify his release.
If, however, Kluwe is wrong or has embellished or misstated facts related to this period of time with the Vikings then he has exposed himself to the possibility of a libel lawsuit by Priefer. Considering the employment ramifications of the statements and Kluwe’s desire to Priefer out of the NFL, and Priefer could also argue that Kluwe is attempting to interfere with his contractual relationship with the Vikings and deny him the opportunity of other employment and lost wages he would otherwise have received as a long-time NFL coach. In short, Kluwe could have exposed himself to significant liability, particularly if the damages can be multiplied (i.e. “punitive” or “treble” damages) due to the nature of the cause of action.
Priefer remains employed by the Vikings – Leslie Frazier was fired, but Priefer and other coaches remain under contract. His status is anything but certain and, regardless of the outcome of the investigation, it is fair to assume he will not coach for the Vikings next year.
The Vikings stated Kluwe’s release was a football decision: they replaced him with a younger, less expensive player who gives them comparable results; it had nothing to do with Kluwe’s beliefs and outspoken support of same-sex rights. Ironically, they could make the same argument in letting Priefer out of his contract: it is a football move necessitated by a new coaching staff and desire to offer their new head coach a clean slate of coaches. As far as the Vikings organization will be concerned (publically) Priefer’s release will have nothing to do with the vocal homophobia Kluwe alleges.
Whether Priefer, like Kluwe, remains unemployed due to his beliefs or his skills will be up for debate. Of the two, I would give Priefer better odds of becoming reemployed than a 32 year old punter – even if you disregarded the blow torch Kluwe put to the balsawood bridge that is the NFL.