About six weeks ago, I referred to Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe as a "fortunate NFL employee." You don't have to spend much time around football coaches to know that many resent when players draw off-field attention to themselves. Fair or not, Kluwe's advocacy for same-sex marriage in Minnesota, and more recently his campaign to elect Ray Guy to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, are the types of pursuits that bristle coaches who expect undivided attention during the season.
Thursday, we got our first on-the-record evidence that the Vikings' patience with Kluwe is wearing thin.
Kluwe had one of his better games of the season last Sunday, pinning the Chicago Bears twice inside their 20-yard line and finishing with a net of 37.4 yards on seven punts. But special teams coordinator Mike Priefer made clear Thursday that he wasn't happy with Kluwe's decision to tape over a Hall of Fame patch on his uniform and write "Vote Ray Guy" on it.
Asked jokingly by Minnesota reporters if he was going to hide the tape from Kluwe next time, Priefer was serious and blunt. Via Mark Craig of the Star Tribune, Priefer said: "I don't even want to talk about it. Those distractions are getting old for me, to be honest with you. Does Ray Guy deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? Absolutely. But there are other ways to go about doing it, in my opinion."
Asked if he would speak with Kluwe about it, Priefer said: "No. He won't listen." Later he added: "To me, it's getting old. He's got to focus on punting and holding."
(Here's the full video of the interview session via vikings.com. The Kluwe discussion begins around the 4:40 mark.)
To be clear, there are two separate discussions here. One is whether Kluwe's advocacy has had any impact on an inconsistent season. That is debatable at best. Most players have pursuits away from the game. Kluwe's are just more public. He hasn't missed any practice time that I'm aware of, and thus has presumably been doing the same things that has made him one of the best punters in Vikings history.
But it really doesn't matter what we think about those issues. The more relevant discussion is how his employers would view these side gigs. And it's now clear that Kluwe's direct supervisor, at least, wants Kluwe to refocus.
Priefer has been the Vikings' special teams coordinator for nearly two years and I don't think he's ever made a public statement that approached headline status. He is a straight-laced former Navy pilot, and I doubt he would step outside the organizational sphere on a limb.
It's pretty significant when a coach says publicly that he's not going to discuss a problem with a player because "he won't listen." It's more than fair to speculate whether that means Kluwe's time with the franchise is approaching its conclusion.
Kluwe will punt for the Vikings this Sunday against the St. Louis Rams because he is certainly better than any alternative the team could find at the moment. But with a full offseason to shop, the Vikings will have more opportunities to find a credible replacement.
It wouldn't be at all surprising, based on Priefer's comments Thursday, to see Kluwe go the way of place-kicker Ryan Longwell a year ago. You can scream and yell all you want about whether that's fair or vindictive or silly or anything else. But sometimes that's how it goes in professional sports.