As you may know, people really like sports.
Lots of people.
Millions of people.
And they like it so much that they will furiously dissect the evaluation and selection of new players during the epic "drafts" that have come to dominate a fans' off-season calendar. (I sometimes wonder if aspiring draft pundits are standing on their elementary school playgrounds right now arguing over who Timmy should have taken third for kickball, Johnny who was caught eating paste but can run a 6.3 dash to first base, or Annabelle who hasn't had a great season 'till now but does have tremendous upside.)
While drafts are great opportunities for armchair GMs to opine and prognosticate about the future, they also signal the beginning of the end for veteran athletes who will soon be replaced by younger, less expensive talent. Such was the case for Minnesota Vikings' punter Chris Kluwe on Saturday. When the Vikings drafted a young punter int he fifth round, pundits and fans raced to analyze the pick and debate the likelihood that Kluwe would never wear gold and purple again [outside of World of Warcraft that is].
But a change in punters' isn't normally a newsworthy event, unless that punter is a prominent personality who appears on NPR and Comedy Central [as Kluwe is]. It is even more noticeable when said punter is an outspoken proponent of marriage equality [as Kluwe also is]. Suddenly, changing punters seems to be less of a management decision and more of a referendum on a employing someone who capitalizes on his (relative) celebrity.
I don't know the Vikings reasoning for removing Kluwe, and I doubt I'll ever know. I am sure that in football, as in almost every other sport, when talent is similar the younger, cheaper option is preferable to the older, pricier option (that's just sane management). I am also sure that the Vikings are in the business of keeping fans happy, so I can see how a controversial kicker who espouses uncomfortable opinions does not necessarily help the business. Kluwe's attitude and advocacy seemed to alienate his supervisor (the special teams' coach) and also seemed to irritate a swathe a fans [if the plethora of "he-should've-kept-his-mouth-shut-and-played-the-damn-game" comments on talk radio and the internet are any guide]. Given that the NFL eschews societal controversies and that Kluwe's fellow gay-rights agitator in shoulder pads (Ravens' Brendon Ayanbadejo) was recently cut, the Vikings' real reasons for drafting a punter may well be drowned out by a public perception that a player's personal opinions partially contributed to the loss of his job.
If they have allowed his opinions to influence their decision making, then by preparing to cut ties with Kluwe, the Vikings and the NFL are punting a controversial topic downfield. But [and behold my segue back to baseball] would we be having the same conversation if we were talking about Chris Kluwe, middle reliever, instead of Chris Kluwe, punter? If Kluwe was not involved in the highest profile sport in the country, if he was just another "colorful" veteran about to be displaced by a hot prospect, would there be a public perception that his opinions were partially responsible for the end of his career (at least in the Twin Cities)?
I have to think that the answer is yes. Regardless of what sport you play, there's an attitude prevalent among the fan base for sports that playing the game should trump personal opinions. And no matter what opinion the player has and no matter whether you agree or disagree with that opinion, I personally believe that we should be rooting for players and athletes to share their opinions more rather than less.
I know several arguments against having opinionated, activist players prominently featured on your local team. Starting with the thought that they ought to just "play the game" and leave their opinions in their homes, but I can't help but feel that would do our favorite athletes a disservice if we discouraged them from speaking up when they think it matters.
I know some worry that controversial opinions are bad for business [especially since the costumer base for most major sports tends to be conservative], but with polarizing issues you can often gain as many fans on one side of the ideological divide as you lose from the other. (And when discussing gay marriage, the opinion gap between young and old suggests you may well find more long term fans.)
I know some believe that athletes are here to entertain not to agitate, but just because someone is an entertainer doesn't preclude them from having the same right to free will and free expression as a data cruncher, corporate executive, factory worker or educator. More to the point, you might not like Clint Eastwood or George Clooney's politics, but they still are free to express themselves whenever they see fit
I know some cite concerns around locker room morale as a reason to avoid the controversial, but other businesses throughout the country find ways to survive despite disparate opinions in the break room or board room. And if the armed forces can continue protecting and defending our nation with both heterosexual and homosexual servicemen and women (not to mention tolerant and intolerant opinions about sexual orientation) in the same barracks, I have to imagine that professional athletes can play a game.
I know some feel like the purpose of sports is simply to amuse, thereby providing a distraction from the controversies and difficulties of the world around us. Certainly amusement can be nice from time to time. Yet, if taxpaying citizens are going to be held responsible for financing the stadia, arena and ballparks [as we do with other amusement based public institutions like say the Guthrie theatre], it would be nice if (in addition to providing amusement and community pride) teams engaged with the issues that local citizens/financiers are facing too (like the Guthrie does with their plays).
On balance, it would be foolish to ignore the difficulties that come along with having an opinionated player in the locker room. But the difficulties are not insurmountable. Heck, they're barely even daunting. So if baseball (or any other major sport) allows fears over the fallout from opinionated players to dictate their team management, they will be be taking the easy way out of a simple situation.
This is the time to act, and few sports can do it as easily as baseball. Given the sport's historical prominence in challenging social conventions, it seems natural for baseball to take the lead in dealing with the issues of the day (and with a 162 game schedule, its only a matter of time until big issues become part of the every day routine of your life). Baseball's the sport that asked us to consider anti-semitism (with Hank Greenberg), to consider racism (with Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby), to consider the restrictions of labor laws (with Curt Flood).
Of course, simply speaking out in favor of gay rights is not the same as being Jackie Robinson, still, now is the time for sports teams to deal with gay rights. (Witness the fact that in the time between my first draft this morning and my published draft this evening, free agent basketball player Jason Collins became the first openly gay athlete in a major sport.) Opinions about homosexuality are already out there, from the in-game trash talk of Yunel Escobar to the public comments of former Twin Torii Hunter. Baseball teams don't need to go out of our way to hire opinionated players, or to protect them from losing their jobs if they aren't as effective as others, but I hope we never need to dissect the motives for releasing a player whose opinions set them apart from the norm.
If a Twins player speaks up about their opinions, whatever side of the issue they land on, I hope that they are heard, respected and engaged as part of a broader debate. With respect to Edward R. Murrow sports is now what TV once was, it can entertain, but it can also "teach, illuminate...and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends." That responsibility begins with the players and extends out to the managers, executives and owners who work with them, then to the fans who cheer them on.
For everyone involved, and all of us watching/cheering at home, I hope that baseball doesn't punt this opportunity away.