In September 2012, Chris Kluwe, an NFL punter who was then with the Minnesota Vikings, wrote an open letter to Maryland state delegate Emmett Burns, who had asked Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti to “inhibit” one of his players from speaking out in favor of gay marriage. Kluwe asked Burns to shove his words in his “close-minded, totally lacking in empathy piehole.”
Kluwe’s letter drew broad media attention and transformed Kluwe from an eccentric punter known mostly to Vikings fans to a regular fixture in the national discourse on gay marriage. While there is no shortage of athletes who share selfies and deep thoughts on Twitter, Kluwe is peculiarly attuned to new media and Web culture, an habitué of online video game forums and occasional Gawker commenter.
His new book, Beautifully Unique Sparkle Ponies, which goes on sale Tuesday, is a scattered collection of his thoughts on everything from guns, gays, and God to airplane etiquette and child rearing. Last week, he joined me for this (lightly edited) online chat:
me: O.K., my grand theory is that you are a new-media athlete. I don’t just mean a jock that is famous and has lots of followers on Twitter. I mean that your combination of progressive politics, salty language, nerd interests, and openness is well suited to the Web. Are you buying this?
Chris: I wouldn’t say it’s a new type of athlete, more that I’m an athlete that was raised with the Internet and online gaming. There’s lots of people my age (and younger) that have grown up in those environments (chaotic as they are), and I just happen to be one of the first ones to make it to pro sports. It’s more a societal thing than an athletics thing.
me: What is your history with the Web? Like when did you come to e-mail? Facebook (FB)?
Chris: I first started using the internet back when a 14.4 modem was considered fast. I think I was about 11 or 12, and it fascinated me that you could look at all these different things on your computer. Primarily though, I used it for online gaming with my friends (Duke Nukem, Command and Conquer, Diablo—all the games where you had to dial their actual phone number and set up the TCP/IP protocols in the game menu to play). I checked out Facebook when it first came out, but I wasn’t really that into it, and it took me a while to adopt Twitter. I didn’t think you could say much meaningful in 140 characters. Boy, was I wrong.
me: How many hours do you spend online nowadays?
Chris: Well, if you count my phone as an access point (which I do), I’m pretty much constantly online unless I’m at an event or practice or something. Once we get AR stuff like Google Glass (GOOG) working, I would venture to say it’ll be any time I’m not sleeping.
me: I take your point about being a net native and part of a generational shift, but not every athlete your age is ready to wade into the comments section on Gawker.
Chris: Hehe, you can thank online gaming for that. Spend some time on game forums and you quickly learn about how to deal with the comments section.
me: I lump you with Diamondbacks’ pitcher Brandon McCarthy. Guys who are good at their day jobs, for sure, but whose Internet fame outstrips what you would expect. Fair?
Chris: I would say so. There’s very few people who can name a punter.
me: Part of this is understanding what writers and editors (and readers) like. A nerd NFL player is like candy for us. Man bites dog!
Chris: This just happens to be who I am. I was playing video games LONG before I ever thought about playing football. If it wasn’t for my parents making sure that I got outside every now and then as a child, I probably would’ve pursued some sort of tech path. As it is, I happen to also be very good at athletics, and my parents put me in baseball and soccer camps to help hone those skills.
me: Are there guys you would put on the list with you and McCarthy in my imaginary category of new-media athletes?
Chris: [Tampa Bay tight end] Tom Crabtree.
me: Do you think your extracurricular interests have helped endear you to fans?
Chris: I think so, because it allows fans to get a closer interaction with players that they couldn’t get before the rise of social media.
me: Do you expect more of the same from fans in Oakland? Do you ever get a hostile response because of your politics, etc?
Chris: I would hope that the fans in Oakland are savvy about social media. I’ve gotten a few angry messages on Twitter, but they’ve been far outweighed by the supporting ones.
me: Has your outspokenness ever made for awkwardness in the locker room?
Chris: I normally don’t initiate conversations with guys unless they want to talk about certain things—when I’m at the facility, I’m there to play football. If you want to talk about the meaning of life, games, whatever, I’m more than happy to, but when I’m in that building, I’m being paid to play football. Conversely, when I’m not at the facility, that’s my life to live.
me: So how did this book come to be?
Chris: So after my letter to Mr. Burns, three or four publishers contacted me about writing a book. I told them I was too busy. After another three or four publishers approached me, I figured that these are the people that are actually in charge of books, and it would be like if seven or eight NFL teams told me I should play football—they probably know what they’re talking about.
Chris: So I talked with a literary agent, Rob Weisbach—great guy—and we figured out what I wanted to write about. Little, Brown was the only publisher that essentially said, “Write whatever you want and we’ll publish it,” and so it was an easy choice.
me: How long it did it take? What was your writing routine?
Chris: Well, about a quarter of the pieces were ones that I had written previously over the last couple years or so in my free time, and then the rest I wrote pretty much in January. I’m fortunate that I can write pretty quickly, and my writing routine is basically to carry my laptop with me at all times, and if an idea hits, write a piece.
me: Did your editors ask for chapters on specific topics?
Chris: They asked for a couple personal stories and whatnot, but I pretty much ignored them. For me, the good pieces are ones that flow naturally and come from what I want to say—and while a topic might serve as a springboard, if I feel the piece wants to go in a different direction I’m going to follow that instead of forcing it.
me: What are you hoping for as far as response? Would you be happy with a review that says “good for an NFL player”?
Chris: I would want people to hopefully read the book and walk away thinking, “He may be an NFL player, but that’s only the barest tip of the iceberg in terms of who he is as a person.” That’s one of the ideas I try to explore a bit in the book is that if you define someone by a single label, you miss out on so much of what makes them a person—whether that label be “gay,” “athlete,” nerd,” etc. Human beings are complex creatures, and to ignore that is laziness.
Chris: I would also like people to pay attention to the idea of rational empathy, and that as a society, we are walking down a path that’s well-trodden throughout history. Every single human civilization has failed over time, and my belief is that it’s due to a lack of rational empathy, of understanding that if you don’t have equality in your society, the conflicts you breed (whether internally or externally) will eventually cause its collapse.
me: Which brings us to politics. In a couple passages, you launch a Marxist critique of the NFL. “Society continues to pay me and people like me obscene amounts of money. … We would rather be entertained and distracted than focus on building a better future.” In an ideal world, would you be out of a job?
Chris: In an ideal world, entertainment would be regarded as what it is—entertainment—and wouldn’t be valued more heavily than education, than science, than environmental awareness. The list goes on. Right now, we are a nation of bread and circuses, and I would much rather live in a nation where I’m handsomely rewarded for my ability to educate young minds, or devise a better type of space station, rather than one where I’m paid millions of dollars to play a children’s game. I like playing football, but the path we’re currently on is ultimately a self-destructive one as a society. There is a place for entertainment, but not at the cost of our foundations.
me: Do you like football beyond your part in it? Like do you like to watch games? Think you will follow it when your playing days are over?
Chris: Doubtful. I’d prefer to read, play video games, actually do something. I don’t have anything personal against TV (there’s a couple really great shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones), but it’s not something I’ll seek out. I’ll glance over if my wife is watching a game.
me: So what is next for you after punting? More writing?
Chris: Probably. I’m working on a science fiction book with a friend right now,. It’ll be the first in a trilogy, and we’re super-excited about the potential of this universe we’ve created. I’ve discovered that I might actually be somewhat competent at writing, so I’d like to explore that for a while.
me: Is there a market for your Web enthusiasms? Do you get offers to promote things online?
Chris: All the time—mainly for video-game stuff, since that’s a huge hobby of mine.
me: And you take them, I assume?
me: That’s all I got. Thanks for taking the time to do this.
Chris: No problem, thanks a ton for the time :)