03 January 2014

A detour

I will get to a couple posts on my previous digression (NSA and abortion both come to mind as topics that deserve analysis like that), but the common culture news involved a story that intersected the Great American Waterfowl Hereditary Rulers kerfuffle and the American sport I find most ridiculous and/or boring to watch (football). So I figured I should comment on it.

Again, as with the ducks, people can be disciplined or fired by their employers for saying things the employer finds controversial or unpopular. This includes speech that many, many people agree with (again, as with the ducks, just in the other direction). So for that much, let's move on.

I was vaguely aware of Chris Kluwe as a political dissident of sorts within the NFL ranks. He had a campaign to get a punter into the NFL Hall of Fame (which is self-serving since he's a punter himself), but more notably he was involved in a campaign locally in Minnesota against a proposed law banning gay marriage, which subsequently failed, and indirectly involved in defending a fellow NFL player in Baltimore who expressed similar supportive to LGBT rights views against a local political figure demanding his penalty by the team. I did not find his essay written to the local politician all that constructive, enlightening, or likely persuasive (it included some of the same "I'm for the constitution!" logic that I'm finding I have trouble with on many issues these days as it is not productive to deploy it), even as I agreed with most of its central points on marriage equality and free speech. But it did raise his profile on the issue. Clearly this is among many issues he cares about and wishes to speak freely and plainly about and bravo I say to that.

What is less clear is how that follows into a path that resulted in his dismissal from the team he played on. There are several complicating factors with that path of logic:
1) Punters are essentially an expensive specialty function on a football team. An extravagance rather than a necessity. If I ran one, I would not even have a specialized punter on it. I'd just have someone who could kick (the FG kicker or pretty much anyone marginally coordinated and athletic) occasionally punt when it was necessary and probably not even from a punting formation (and this would not be often since I wouldn't punt most of the time that teams are supposedly "forced" to punt). Paying someone 1.5M+ dollars when someone else could essentially do the same things for a third of the price is absurd, as is paying someone that amount when that's all they do on a football field. Kluwe was good at this one thing, but he was not so good at it that he was distinguished easily from a dozen or so other players who could do the same thing, potentially for less money.

And that one thing isn't typically that important versus other things other players can do. Some statistical evaluators of football count punting as a turnover rather than a useful skill. Kicking a long field is useful because it puts points on the board. Punting is usually just giving the other team the ball hopefully in a less useful place on the field while conceding the attempt to keep the ball for your own uses, an attempt which in many cases would either succeed or not sufficiently damage field position that the punt should matter.

2) His performance appears to have declined enough that he was potentially not worth the premium price a team would pay for it. For a punter, a decline does not have to be very much, or the increase in pay from veteran salary structure very much that they can become expendable. We can see that he probably wasn't all that important to the overall success of the team's special teams unit as it fell all the way from 5th last year to... 6th this season. It's possible any decline or decline versus pay would keep him out of the league on an on-going basis well before the attempt at self-flagellation by dragging his former team through the mud on the suspicion that they fired him for something he said.

I'd note I said something similar about Jason Collins after his announcement of his homosexuality at the end of last season and the possibility of playing in the NBA this season. He's a more clearly marginal player who was older and more obviously on the decline skill wise but the process is similar. It's possible both should be capable enough to play somewhere in their professional leagues, and they're both certainly much better at what they do than many hundreds of millions of people. But for how much would a team have to pay them to do what they can still do?

3) He was coming off an injury/surgery in the off-season to his leg. It's very possible the team didn't communicate over his recovery very well for internal reasons aside from just salary-cost benefit ratios of course (read: they wanted to be rid of his politics) but a punter coming off a leg surgery is potentially a liability worth replacing anyway or at least investigating a replacement option who might be better or cheaper.

4) Ownership of the team was supportive of his statements, at least on that issue of marriage equality and legal recognition of homosexual partnerships (it was not clear from Kluwe's writing that they were supportive of other statements, such as those relating to the ex-Pope say?). If management wasn't supportive, I'd suggest ownership take it up with them to get on the same page therein.

So from these, I am not persuaded he was fired or punished as clearly for the comments he was making in the way that Mr Robertson was by AE (in so far as one considers he was punished at all, which I'd say he was not at this point). I concede it is still very possible that his own narrative is conclusive and correct, but there are enough complicating factors that it is not an open and shut case for causes even with that damning accusation being floated and supported. I am not familiar with NFL labor contracts, but I'd guess the team is allowed to get rid of you for "conduct detrimental to the team", which is basically a vague catch-all phrase that might include this basis and my understanding of his contractual rights on his own contract is that he could be dismissed in the off-season without penalty to the team for basically any reason whatsoever because the NFL's understanding and use of "guaranteed contracts" is a lot fuzzier than MLB or the NBA. So there doesn't appear to be a legal issue here.

Ethically though, it sounds like there are two different problems with the Vikings organisation that were ongoing:
1) There appears to be a sketchy and subject to arbitrary whim system used for player evaluation being disguised as a scientifically useful "metric". If his claims that most of the team's special teams unit players had a "negative rating" in 2012 are accurate, that's a unit that rated in the top 10 in the NFL that year (DVOA has them 5th, they were 6th this year, and 26th Priefer's first year in 2011). Maybe Kluwe personally had a negative rating, or some individuals did, but most of that team unit? Either the system is horribly flawed or the coach is a sadistic bastard who wants his players to think they are terrible at their jobs so they can be replaced easier even if they are quite good at them and is essentially lying to them all season.

If that's the meaning of "details-oriented" coaching, I'm not surprised that many NFL organisations seem to struggle through by recycling coaches and unit coordinators from other teams as it doesn't sound like a data-driven approach helping modify the team psychology and performance as a form of details. It mostly sounds like authoritarian nonsense masquerading as a rigorous scientific approach because there's a quantifiable number being used somewhere in the process and somebody somewhere might have used a computer to look at it rather than potentially more meaningful data.

2) The comments, particularly "the put all the gays on an island and nuke it" one, are abhorrent in any context. Particularly when made aggressively or assertively by an authority figure, but they're far, far worse than Robertson's "homosexuality is a sin" and "vagina is better" statements* and the tone does not sound like these were statements made with some humorous rant intention that might somehow obviate it with sarcasm say. If those statements can be corroborated, I'd seriously doubt he gets the Vikings head coaching position next year, or maybe any other coaching position. He has denied stating them, but there's enough circumstantial evidence (his son's twitter feed for instance) that suggest it's a common occurrence that demands some rigorous investigation if a team does not want to annoy some not-insubstantial percentage of the broader public by elevating him to a higher position within the organisation.

That second problem needs to be cleaned up and addressed. Even if one is an evangelical or fundamentalist Christian and holds homosexuality in very low regard morally, it seems rather worse than blind faith adherence to that moral finding to proceed to advocate for the purposeful destruction of millions of other human beings while in a modestly public setting such as a team clubhouse. It seems also like an unproductive use of his time and energy as a team employee to make such a statement rather than, I don't know, coaching the football team and attempting to enhance the players' on-field abilities with motivation and direction and planning.

In as far as Kluwe quotes the now-ex-head-coach (Frazier) as saying something to the effect of keeping politics and religion out of the locker room (and by extension off one's twitter feed), this might be accurate when one's politics and religion lead one to adopt violent and damaging imagery as a means of describing those views. That doesn't appear to have been a mandate that was applied to Priefer, just Kluwe. Which is a problem of consistency that allows a certain privileged position of gross and destructive intolerance relative immunity while punishing its opposite for the suggestion of moderated tolerance. It also appears to basically have nothing to do with football as a norm anyway; plenty of players advocate for their faith or for political issues that they have some attachment to. Not many advocate against the Pope or for gay marriage rights of course. But it amazed me how popular Tim Tebow was as though he was the only NFL player making such demonstrations and proclamations involving personal faith and he certainly involved himself in political topics, controversial ones at that. He was not the only one to do so; he just seemed like the only one ESPN wanted to talk about because he was polarizing when he did.

I would highly doubt that with a reasonably close-knit group of men living and training in close proximity for months at a time that faith and politics would be abolished as a general rule from off-field discourse. They might be discouraged among some, or things that others do not care about and do not care to talk about or be talked to about. But that's not the same as saying there's some unwritten rule about what you can't talk about in the team clubhouse or post on one's twitter feed in between games as general topics (there undoubtedly are ways of expression and specific topics within faith or politics that can get one in some hot water of course).

The team probably needs to set out some basic "wait... what the fuck did you just say?" rule for both players and coaches as a result rather than pretend that these sorts of comments exist in a non-existent universe where they didn't actually happen. Given that there are other players and coaches who have gotten into penalty mode for saying abusive or absurdly intolerant things on homosexuality in the past couple of years, I'd expect some penalty for the coach (assuming he did actually say some of the things he is accused of saying).

*Robertson has since either said or been dug up saying other repugnant things that are much less commonly held to be acceptable by millions of people, such as potentially encouraging statutory rape (by exhorting men to marry 15-16 year old girls, essentially because they're easier to dominate socially than a 20 year old), or his various comments on the Jim Crow South and race or religion (he has some noted Islamophobia and anti-immigrant views as well). These statements are horrible too, perhaps much worse than his initial homosexuality remarks for the level of bigotry and intolerance suggested in them, but they're still not suggestive that he would prefer to kill millions of people via his disgust for homosexuals either. They're more like the same ignorant nonsense that one might have expected him to say if one were given a stereotypical description of his on-screen character in a reality TV show about a group of Southern hunters in a patriarchal family unit run by an older white guy who grew up in that environment.
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