Thursday, January 9, 2014

National Friday League: Divisional Round

Chris Kluwe
Participation in the Democratic Process
Among Chris Kluwe's claims, I'm very disturbed by his account that Leslie Frazier tried to stop him from his political advocacy. As Minnesotans will remember, the marriage amendment was a contentious issue, and not only was it an issue up for debate, it was an issue up for vote. Advocacy on issues up for popular vote is quite simply part of the democractic process. Would Frazier really suggest that Chris Kluwe should not participate in the democratic process as long as he is punting for the Minnesota Vikings? That is absurd. Of course there are consequences for our free speech. And of course if Chris Kluwe were to advocate in any way on behalf of the Vikings, the Vikings would have reason to step in (more on this in a minute). But to suggest that on his own time, Chris Kluwe shouldn't participate in the democratic process because he holds a job playing professional football? This is simply wrong.

This is why I cited Charles Pierce's post last week. There's something disturbing about employers controlling too much of an employee's free time activities, especially when those free time activities involve participating in self-government and taking an active role in a fight for social justice. To what extent should taking a job mean restricting one's democratic freedom?

I share Kluwe's politics on same-sex marriage, but if you don't, consider a parallel situation. When conservatives talked about "free speech" after that Duck Dynasty guy was suspended, I assume they knew that the television network didn't violate the guy's First Amendment rights. What these critics were doing was pushing back on a company for punishing an employee's independent speech (speech they largely agreed with, I think). That's the issue. And if you don't like that a company punishes an employee for his/her speech (or if you agree with the employee's speech and want to defend it specifically), you can speak out. You can publicly criticize the punishment. You can publicly criticize the employer or company. You can try to create a society and culture in which companies know there can be backlash if they restrict their employees' expression, or try push for a society and culture that accepts certain views and expressions.

So if you view a television network suspending a television personality for controversial comments a free speech issue, I assume you view it as a free speech issue if a football coach tells a player to stop speaking out on a political issue. Because according to Kluwe,

 "Once inside, Coach Frazier immediately told me that I 'needed to be quiet, and stop speaking out on this stuff' (referring to my support for same-sex marriage rights). I told Coach Frazier that I felt it was the right thing to do (what with supporting equality and all), and I also told him that one of his main coaching points to us was to be 'good men' and to 'do the right thing.' He reiterated his fervent desire for me to cease speaking on the subject, stating that 'a wise coach once told me there are two things you don't talk about in the NFL, politics and religion.' I repeated my stance that this was the right thing to do, that equality is not something to be denied anyone, and that I would not promise to cease speaking out. At that point, Coach Frazier told me in a flat voice, 'If that's what you feel you have to do,' and the meeting ended. The atmosphere was tense as I left the room." 

And according to Kluwe, a few days later

"I was once again called into Leslie Frazier's office. Coach Frazier asked me if I was going to keep speaking out on the matter of same-sex marriage and equality. I responded that I was, and I related what Zygi Wilf had said to me at the game the day before. Coach Frazier looked stunned and put his hand across his face. He then told me: 'Well, he writes the checks. It looks like I've been overruled.'"

Who knows how that meeting between a boss and employee would have gone if Frazier didn't learn that the team owner supported Kluwe and told Kluwe to keep it up?

I hope we're not a country in which bosses can discourage employees from participating in democracy.  I hope we're not a country in which bosses can discourage employees from engaging in social issues. I hope we're not a country in which having a job means that your free time isn't yours.  

And a side note cheap shot

I hope we get a Viking coach who doesn't spend his time worrying about his players' political advocacy, and instead spends his time making the defense non-shitty.

Just what is a "distraction"?
Football is a game. Chris Kluwe was advocating on an issue that affected people's lives. He was advocating for people's rights, on whether their relationship statuses could ever be recognized by the state government (which would have all sorts of consequences). If you're a coach on the Vikings, then winning affects your livelihood: you have reason to worry about distractions from that task. But if you're a fan? If you think advocating on issues affecting people's rights is a problem because it would distract from a team's ability to win football games...I'd ask you to think about what a real "distraction" is.

And just what counts as a distraction?  I'm certain that many members of the Minnesota Vikings have personal hobbies. I'm guessing some of them engage with their hobbies in their personal time during the season. Do these things count as distractions? Many players have endorsement deals that call for them to do various things (show up to shake hands and sign autographs at some locations, show up to film commercials, whatever). Are these distractions? People do all sorts of things on their own time; they only become distractions if what they do on their own time negatively impacts their performance.

So is there any evidence of a "distraction" affecting performance? If an employee's performance is suffering, the employer can certainly ask why. Was Chris Kluwe's performance suffering? There's not any obvious evidence. His net yards per attempt from '10 to '12 went from 43.0 to 45.7 to 45.0. There are a lot of other factors that can determine whether Kluwe was a successful punter, or a declining punter, of course.  But I don't recall any real performance issues from Kluwe (or the special teams in general, for that matter) from 2012.

For a detailed and angry takedown of the concept of "distractions" in football, see Drew Magary at Deadspin.

And another cheap shot
Maybe Leslie Frazier was so distracted from monitoring his players' political activity that he wasn't able to make the defense non-shitty. Does that count as a "distraction"?

Private citizens as a part of an organization 
Does anybody remember when Mike Tice spoke at a campaign event for George W. Bush at a rally the day before a game (when they got hammered)? Mike Tice was just participating in the democratic process, and I don't think anybody should deny him that right--people might criticize his endorsement, but shouldn't criticize his act of making an endorsement. I was irritated, however, that Tice gave Bush a Viking jersey with his name on it. I felt by doing that, Tice was acting in some sense in his capacity as coach, representing the Vikings. This amounted to an endorsement by the team, in my view (this differs from the tradition of champions visiting the White House and giving the president a jersey--a pointless tradition, but whatever--because it was a campaign event). And the team of course has a right to endorse candidates, positions, and ballot initiatives too! But the bosses of the franchise might wish to restrict their employees from political advocacy on behalf of the team, whether the team agrees with that advocacy or not (I felt the same way when Tony Dungy accepted a controversial award and said he accepted it "on behalf" of the Colts).

There is a sense in which a person can be both a private citizen and a public representative of an organization, and can separate those two roles for different situations. Sometimes a line between those two things gets blurred. One of King Lear's notable flaws is his blurring of his role as king and his role as father. While playing his role as king (determining the future power structure of his country), he starts playing the role of father (asking his daughters to publicly profess how much they love him). He ends up acting poorly as a king and a father: his fatherly hurt leads him to poor decisions as king, and he uses his kingly position to treat his daughter Cordelia (and her defender Kent) terribly.

There's a balance to be made, and quite often a separation to be made. And it can often be a messy process, with some disagreement about how to manage that line.

Was there a better way for Kluwe to handle this?
There's been some pushback against Kluwe for when and how he's gone about talking about this situation (for example, see "[Ben] Leber at one point chastising Kluwe for not trying to engage Priefer in a 'man to man' conversation about their locker room tension"). I think this criticism relies on beliefs about football culture and pro football locker room culture, that there is a particular way conflicts within this culture are supposed to be handled. Well, if you didn't realize that this culture is at least a little bit cracked, you should have figured it out with everything involving the Miami Dolphin bullying situation this year.

But think about this as a workplace incident. There's an employee who answers to a supervisor and, ranking above the supervisor, a manager. The supervisor makes anti-gay statements to the employee. But the employee already knows that the manager has warned him against publicly advocating for gay rights, that the supervisor frowns on the employee's advocacy, and views it as a problem and a distraction. What exactly are the proper channels for that employee? Is that something to contact the owner about? If the employee wants to keep his job, or wants another job in the same field someday, what's he supposed to do?

You've seen how some people have responded negatively to Jonathan Martin and how he handled his situation. Chris Kluwe is around the same kinds of people and the same sort of atmosphere of that reaction. If he wants to work in the league, how exactly was he supposed to respond to this? And how is he wrong for making this public after his career is over?

It seems to me that football culture discourages personal eccentricity in players much moreso than other team sport cultures do, that football culture pushes for a sort of conformity. Baseball and basketball seem to give fans more chances to embrace idiosyncratic, weird, personally outrageous players than football does. My overall sense of the Miami Dolphins bullying situation was a difficulty dealing with difference within that pressured atmosphere of conformity. Chris Kluwe was a player around this culture. Maybe he could have handled it differently, but I don't think there's as simple a way to do so as some people think.

Why the Vikings must avoid quarterback panic
Because there are quarterback prospects in the future, and there will always be quarterback prospects in the future; there's no rule that says a QB you hope to start for 15 years must be drafted immediately (especially when you also gave up the most points in the league last year: there are other big needs to fill, and it's not like this is a great defensive team that's a quarterback away).

One Viking fan list of who to root for and who not to root for
There are eight teams that can still win the Super Bowl, and if you're a Viking fan and rooting at all, you're probably rooting based on what players, coaches, and franchises you generally like or dislike.  Here's one Viking fan's list of who to root for and who not to root for based on feeling lousy about being a Viking fan.

Root for: Seattle, Carolina, San Diego
These three teams have never won a Super Bowl.  They have varying histories, both long and short, but it's better to see fans get the first-time pleasure of seeing their team win a Super Bowl, right? At least there's no reason to root against those fans experiencing joy, even if you don't particularly care for or about these teams. Then again, Seattle?

Root against: New Orleans, New England, Indianapolis, San Francisco
It's hard to root for the Saints if you aren't over 2009, and you're probably not. It's hard to root for the Patriots because of all their dominance, and the 49ers were the Patriots of the '80s and '90s (see below), which wasn't that long ago, so screw them. The Colts had Peyton Manning for years and now have Andrew Luck in their second year: can't Colt fans wait a few years for Luck to start winning championships for their pleasure?

Make your own choice: Denver
The argument against is that they've won two Super Bowls and Peyton Manning has won one. But I always had some affection for Denver and Buffalo, our fellow 0-4 Super Bowl sufferers, and I didn't give up those soft feelings for Denver because they finally did what we want to do. And I used to dislike Peyton Manning, and started liking him because I'm a Viking fan: after so many playoff disappointments and getting the choker label, as a fan of a team with so many playoff disappointments and the choker label, I started rooting for him to finally do it. They're also the closest thing to a Midwestern team in the playoffs, so you can get geographical about it if you want.

This Week's Games
Divisional Round Games

Seattle-New Orleans. I don't think Seattle is going to the Super Bowl: their offense has shown too many recent limitations, and Pete Carroll has shown too much bad clock management at the end of games. I think somebody is knocking them off in the next two week. Then again, their pass defense is otherworldly. They dominate the league in practically every category: 28 INTs (#1), 5.3% INT Rate (#1--second place is just 4.1%, and the league average is 2.8%), 16 TDs (#2), 2,752 yards (#1), 5.8 yards per attempt (#1), 4.0 adjusted yards per attempt (#1--second place is 5.2, and the league average is 6.8), 9.9 yards per completion (#1), passer rating allowed (63.4--the league-wide rating is 84.1). Also,'s sortable statistics are amazing, in case you didn't know that already.  Based on those pass defense numbers, I think Seattle beats New Orleans, but either Carolina or (I think) the 49ers get them next week.

Indianapolis-New England. This will be an entertaining game to watch.  

San Francisco-Carolina. This is a game of two extraordinary defenses (the Panthers rank 2nd in points and yards allowed; the 49ers rank 3rd in points and 5th in yards). I think the difference in this game will be that the 49ers have good skill position players, and the Panthers mostly don't. Colin Kaepernick will be working with Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, and Michael Crabtree, while Cam Newton relies on DeAngelo Williams, Steve Smith, Greg Olsen, Brandon LaFell, and Ted Ginn Jr. Against these strong defenses (particularly strong in the front seven), I'd rather have Kaepernick's supporting cast than Newton's.

San Diego-Denver. This will be an entertaining game to watch.

Late thoughts on San Francisco beating Green Bay
The 49er-Packer game was the first game of which I cared passionately about the outcome since September. If the Vikings do finally win a Super Bowl, I think my dread of the Packers winning yet another will cease...or at least wane. But probably not a second sooner. During the game we discovered that in addition to shouting "A-O, River!" for any big play, shouting "Utini!" for any first down is also fun. It's still fun to jump around and yell during a football game: that's good to know for next September.

Irrational Thoughts
Joe Buck was getting so excited for Packer big plays that I started to think my antenna was picking up some special local Green Bay broadcast.

The 49ers!
In my house we decided that if San Francisco knocked Green Bay out of the playoffs, we'd root for the 49ers for the rest of the playoffs. I'm already half in love with Colin Kaepernick.

That was some officiating, eh?
I'm also glad so many others noticed that during Aaron Rodgers' big fourth down play, a Packer offensive lineman reached around the 49er sacking Rodgers from behind, grabbed his jersey, and yanked the guy away. I'm glad people noticed this because otherwise it would mean a plague of blindness had descended on football spectators, and that could be bad.  

Cold Weather Football
All I'm saying is it takes some real gladiator types, real tough characters, to handle the raw winter elements.

The Greatest Dynasty
The San Francisco 49ers from 1981 to 1998 had the longest reigning dynasty in NFL history. In 18 seasons, they were under .500 once, won 10+ games in 17 of 18 years, won 12+ games in 10 seasons (a peak of 15-1), made the playoffs in 16 of 18 years, made it to the NFC Championship Game 10 times, made it to 5 Super Bowls, and won them all. They led the league in scoring 6 times, and went 22-11 in the playoffs.

It's a myth that the 49ers of the '80s sustained their dominance because the free agency/salary cap era hadn't come along yet and they hoarded their veterans; they sustained their dominance because they consistently drafted great players to replace aging or inferior players (it's also a myth that the '90s Cowboys couldn't sustain their dynasty because of the free agency/salary cap era: they just stopped drafting good players).

Are the New England Patriots of 2001 to 2013 approaching the 49ers? During these 13 years, they've never been under .500, won 10+ games 12 times, won 12+ games 8 times (a peak of 16-0), made the playoffs 11 times, went to 7 AFC Championship Games, made it to 5 Super Bowls, and won 3 of them (not including what they do in the playoffs this year). They led the league in scoring 3 times and have so far gone 17-7 in the playoffs. The question is how long Bill Belichick's and Tom Brady's Patriot tenures last, and whether their dynasty survives the end of Belichick's and/or Brady's career, as the 49er dynasty survived the end of Bill Walsh's and Joe Montana's 49er tenures.

Kick Ass Links
What does it mean to be a smart football player? (The New Yorker).

Try to do something outside Saturday morning and early afternoon: you'll feel less bad for watching 12+ hours of football during a veritable warm spell.

Have a good one, suckers.


  1. One of my favorite of your pieces. Thanks, Darren!

  2. Thanks Arif. I have to admit I didn't write this one. Joe Fischer (a.k.a Pacifist Viking) did. I could never write anything this intelligent.

  3. I don't want employers telling employees what they can say and I think that Frazier was clearly in the wrong telling Kluwe to shut up. However, I think there is room to quibble a bit on some of the specifics. It seemed like Kluwe was appearing nearly *everywhere* in the fall of 2012. I don't know how many media appearances he had, but it seemed like every week there were two or three new ones. Football players get paid boatloads of money and one of the trade offs is that they dedicate the football season to football. If Ponder had been that active with some non-football activity, we would have called for him to be benched. (Well, more so.) To be fair, I don't have a clue on what the demands are or should be for a punter. It's certainly possible that he would have punted about the same as he did, either way.
    There was also a high level of aggression to Kluwe's advocacy and I wouldn't be surprised if that played into this. If he had offered some quiet, high minded op-eds on the benefits of same sex marriage, it may not have been an issue. He clearly liked to stir things up and I'd be surprised if he wasn't in the middle of some heated locker-room discussions.
    This can matter. I'm fine if I wear a political button on my coat to work. If I start button holing people at the water cooler to tell them why Jimmy Cater is going to hell for giving away the Panama canal, well, my manager is going to want to talk to me. FWIW, I'm a same sex marriage supporter and I happily voted against the marriage amendment last year. I thought that Kluwe's approach did more harm than good.
    One more thing, there was another route that Kluwe could have gone. He could have gone to the players union. Surely they have poeple there that would be sympathetic to the type of grievances that Kluwe is writing about. They would have worked to protect him from being black listed. Maybe he shouldn't gone there after one short meeting with Frazier but certainly after the nuke 'em comments.

    1. Peder: I actually tweeted the post directly to Kluwe this morning before you commented. He direct messages me back with this reply: "That was a good read, thanks. To the third commentor, in case he's curious, I never had a problem with any of my teammates, nor did I "buttonhole them on my way to the water cooler."

    2. Oops! Forgot that he also put a :) at the "water cooler."