Holler: Kluwe digging in for ugly fight

Chris Kluwe appears willing to air dirty laundry in his attempt to exact revenge on the Vikings for releasing him. But in the NFL, middle-of-the-road players with high salaries are often released.

There isn’t going to be a winner in the ongoing saga of Chris Kluwe and the Vikings, which ratcheted up Friday night when the Vikings released a 29-page summary of an estimated 150-page investigative document that the team commissioned following a scathing article on the website Deadspin that was written by Kluwe – bearing the headline that accused the Vikings of having a homophobe (special teams coordinator Mike Priefer) in their midst and having an organization run by two cowards (general manager Rick Spielman and then-head coach Leslie Frazier).

Almost from the outset, it was clear that Kluwe was baiting for a fight. Even after the investigation proved that Priefer did make the comment in question, Kluwe has made it clear that he wasn’t going to go away quietly. He has vowed to file a lawsuit against the Vikings early this week claiming that the team didn’t do enough.

The Vikings attempted to negotiate a settlement with Kluwe, who, through his attorney, asked that Priefer be suspended for a term of four to eight games and that the Vikings donate $1 million to charitable efforts that fight for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender causes. The Vikings refused to meet Kluwe’s demands, but did announce a three-game suspension for Priefer (that can be reduced to two games if he attends sensitivity training classes) and a $100,000 donation to the LGBT causes.

That offer was rejected by Kluwe and he is threatening to take the gloves off – not simply concerning the Priefer allegations, but other allegedly unseemly conduct of members of the Vikings organization.

It would seem that Kluwe is picking for a fight and is actively poking the bear with a stick. The bigger question should be why?

As part of the investigation, the Vikings sought to get clarity from independent outsiders to actually assess the play of Kluwe in 2012 and if it warranted the Vikings making a move to a new punter (Jeff Locke) and not retribution for his front-and-center role in the fight to pass same-sex marriage legislation in Minnesota.

The investigators commissioned former Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo and 17-year veteran punter Craig Hentrich to review game film of Kluwe to determine his value. Kluwe stated earlier that he was a “middle of the road” punter. That mea culpa admission is telling because there were many who believed he was less than middle of the road.

At least twice during his tenure with the Vikings, coaches got frustrated with his inability to angle kick out of bounds or consistently get enough hang time for coverage units to get down the field and in position to make plays, that they auditioned potential replacements. Thanks to Kluwe’s punts and his coverage units, Devin Hester’s highlight reel has a lot of electrifying plays. Punting isn’t just about how far one can strike the ball, but doing so in such a way that return yardage is minimized. A 35-yard punt that results in a fair catch is better than a 50-yard punt returned 25 yards or more. Kluwe had far too many of the latter and not enough of the former during his Vikings career.

Kluwe survived both challenges in which punters were publicly brought in for tryouts, but it was clear that he was not an elite punter. Locke was a dominant college punter and brought the added bonus of being a left-footed kicker. Coaches say return men often struggle in hauling in left-footed punts because they typically spin in the opposite direction that the returners are used to. The Vikings routinely brought in a left-footed punter the week before they’re facing one in a game to get their returners acclimated to dealing with that reverse spin. Considering Locke would be paid $1 million less and didn’t have a very high bar to meet or surpass what Kluwe was able to accomplish, it was a business move that made sense at too many levels. It just happened that it coincided with Kluwe becoming a media darling of the LGBT crowd.

The simple reality is that Kluwe was a pedestrian punter in his final year. He wasn’t the worst punter in the league, but his name was never mentioned in the discussion of the best. He was what coaches and G.M.s call a JAG – Just Another Guy. The fact that Kluwe made his way into the spotlight and loved it was a big issue to a lot of people – I got so tired of his prepared answers and attempts to be a standup comedian every time a reporter came up to ask legitimate questions, that, if at all possible, I wouldn’t even go up to interview him. That was my stance on what was becoming a circus.

But the NFL doesn’t get rid of players who have talent regardless of their off-field entanglements. Michael Vick was an awful human being when he was financing a dog-fighting ring – he spent two years in jail as a result – but his talent was such that at least one NFL team wanted him on their roster. Kluwe was an activist, not a criminal, yet during the entire 2013 season, while the Priefer allegations were being kept under wraps by Kluwe, he didn’t make the cut for a single team.

Was the lack of Kluwe signing because of his activism? There were probably some teams that shied away from him because they didn’t want the outside distractions that such public activities bring with them. But if Kluwe was as good as he thought he was, it would have made sense that one of the teams with the worst punters in the league would have given him a call. They didn’t.

Kluwe had eight years with the Vikings – far more than the average NFL player has and was the second-longest tenure of any punter in Vikings history, second only to Greg Coleman. It was a good run, but the Vikings were willing to move on and more than a half-century of Vikings history would say it was time.

But Kluwe wasn’t willing to accept that fate. The bottom line is that when players get to be vested veterans, they often get let go in cost-cutting moves. Is Chris Johnson looking to sue Tennessee for releasing him? No, because teams can cut players almost at whim. The fact Johnson was able to find work with the Jets within a week or so of being released speaks to the fact that at least one team saw value in him. None of the other 31 teams in the NFL thought Kluwe had what they were looking for at his league-veteran guaranteed salary minimum.

The worst of the Vikings-Kluwe fight may well be in front of us, not behind us. He wants a pound of flesh. He wanted Priefer fired and he wasn’t, despite much of the coaching staff being rooted out after the 2013 season. He wanted to hold the Vikings hostage for a $1 million donation that they weren’t obligated to make. The Vikings balked at that level of ransom.

A former Vikings teammate said he expects Kluwe will continue to fight no matter how dirty the fight gets. That’s just how Kluwe is wired. His biggest failing may be that, as someone who championed the cause of tolerance and acceptance – even for a group of which he is not affiliated – he hasn’t always practiced what he preaches.

Stories of Kluwe’s own insensitivity for the sake of trying to be funny have surfaced and, if the case moves forward, there may be a lot of skeletons falling out of the closet – his and the Vikings. It has the potential to get very ugly and, as things currently stand, Kluwe is ready to sign up for another 15 minutes of fame to be the whistleblower who pulls back the curtain on the NFL and lets everyone see it.

Football is a strange occupation because, much like the military and Mafia, there are a lot of secrets that are kept in-house and behind closed doors. Those who break the code of silence often become pariahs who, in the case of the military, end up at Leavenworth, and, in the case of the Mafia, end up in an oil drum 50 feet below the surface of a body of water. The NFL doesn’t have that level of vendetta, but it’s clear Kluwe likely won’t be going to any NFL team again as a player.

The battle between Kluwe and the Vikings may end up being waged in a courtroom – complete with salacious tales of bad conduct. But the bottom line in any fight that may be coming is that the Vikings had the right to release Kluwe based simply on his performance and not his activism. He just wasn’t as good as his salary indicated and the Vikings were weary of paying a seven-figure contract to a guy who was, by his own admission, just a middle-of-the-road player. You don’t win championships when you have too many middle-of-the-road guys.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.

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