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Chris Kluwe: Almost easier to be a criminal than an atheist in NFL

NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue  at the fifth annual PFLAG National Straight for Equality Awards at Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City.
NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue at the fifth annual PFLAG National Straight for Equality Awards at Marriott Marquis Hotel in New York City.
Photo by D Dipasupil

Chris Kluwe is a former punter with a long list of Minnesota Vikings records to his credit. He is arguably the best punter they've ever had. Despite this, his biggest claim to fame may be "the letter." As his career was coming to a close, he became more and more openly supportive of LGBT rights, to the point of calling out a Maryland state assembly delegate for suggesting football players should keep quiet if they support gay rights. After Kluwe was released by the Vikings, he published a letter publicly accusing the team of getting rid of him because of his beliefs. Ellen Degeneres had him on her show, and inducted him as the first member of her hall of fame for his support of LGBT issues.

Chris Kluwe, American Atheists

At the 2014 American Atheists Conference, in Salt Lake City, Kluwe was the keynote speaker. He gave a moving speech covering the need for people to consciously practice empathy. He also answered a number of questions about his sports career, being "cheerfully agnostic" in the NFL, and the end of his career. After the presentation, I was able to sit down with him for a few minutes and talk further.

William Hamby: "Are we atheists doing enough to include sports in our community? Are we missing an opportunity by not paying closer attention to the enormous role of sports in American culture?"

Chris Kluwe: I think it can help a lot with the normalization process, because people do view sports figures as role models, and I know guys who are atheists, and to be able to have guys like that to point to and say, "Look, you have your Adrian Petersons on the one side, who are very much religious, and also very well regarded sports figures, and on the other side we have another guy who is not religious, but is also a very good athlete." And that makes people look at it and say, "You don't have to be religious to play sports. You can be who you are. You can be a human being and play sports."

WH: There's a perception in some circles that atheists are mostly... well... kind of eggheads. Maybe we're not as sports-crazy as other communities, and I think there's probably some truth to that idea. What can we egghead types do to help sports players who may be atheists?

CK: It really depends. The other thing is that sometimes football players are atheists, and they're also dumb. And they're like, "We don't believe in God, but we're not going to do anything about it. We just want to go play football."

WH: (laughing) Well, let me rephrase a little bit. What can we do to help change sports culture in general so that any kind of atheism is more acceptable?

CK: I think a lot of that is with the normalization of atheism in communities in general. Especially because a lot of football communities tend to be primarily religious communities, you know like the deep south, the Bible Belt. Like those are very much football towns where religion is intertwined with football. So as atheism becomes more accepted and more practiced, then you'll have more people raised in an atmosphere where it's not just Christianity, not just one religion.

WH: So in the past few years, it seems like there has been one story after another about players with serious criminal problems. Do you think with all the PR disasters it was easier for you to come out as atheist... pardon me... "cheerfully agnostic?"

CK: It's almost harder in a sense. The NFL is a very religious place, in terms of prayer groups, bible study and stuff like that, and while they're not going to say you can't be agnostic or atheist, or whatever, they're also going to tell you to keep it to yourself. It's almost easier to be a criminal than it is to be an agnostic or atheist and be open about it, to be able to say to people, "Yeah, I don't believe in that prayer circle, or whatever." And you know, that's a societal issue. As atheism grows and grows and more and more people understand that this isn't something to be afraid of, something to shun people for, then you start seeing those changes in all facets of society, which includes sports.

WH: Wow. That's really a powerful and kinda surprising thing to say. So let me ask you this. Do you think that having openly atheist sports figures will help people to tap into their human empathy? In other words, when sports fans have to choose between hating this star player because he's openly atheist, or being loyal to the team, do you think it will help people become more accepting of atheists in general?

CK: Yeah, definitely. Look what happened when sports became unsegregated. They were very much like, at first, "We can't have a black guy on our team," and then it was like, "Hey, that black guy is really good. He's on our team. He's our black guy." And then you go a couple of generations, and then it's like, "Yeah, everybody should be able to play sports." So for atheists, that is definitely something that helps with that normalization process.

Chris Kluwe is nothing if not outspoken, and from this writer's point of view, it's important to say the things that may be controversial, especially when we're talking about such an enormous part of American culture. Sports is just one more place where it's not a good idea to be openly atheist, but it's also a place where we non-believers have a fantastic opportunity to change America for the better. Thank you, Chris Kluwe, for your continuing work for equality, and your willingness to put your own reputation and career on the line to stand up for the oppressed and silenced.

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