MINNEAPOLIS — Former punter Chris Kluwe is taking the next step in his contention with the Minnesota Vikings following what he believes was wrongful termination and a culture of intolerance.
Kluwe, along with attorney Clayton Halunen, announced plans for a lawsuit against the Vikings on Tuesday after the team allegedly said it wouldn’t release the findings of an investigation into homophobic remarks made by special teams coach Mike Priefer and subsequent inaction by team management.
In a press conference at his Minneapolis offices, Halunen said legal action will be taken against the team, including claims of religious discrimination against Kluwe, sexual orientation discrimination, defamation and "torturous interference for contractual relations."
Halunen said the report would eventually be made public anyway, as part of any litigation.
"At this point we have no choice but to file a lawsuit, which we intend to do so shortly," he said. "In that lawsuit the very first thing we will get in the request and the course of discovery will be the investigation report and we will, to the extent we’re able, make that public."
Kluwe’s allegations against the Vikings began in January after he penned a strongly worded article for the website Deadspin.com, which outlined several instances of homophobic remarks made by Priefer, who was retained under new coach Mike Zimmer after Leslie Frazier was fired.
In the Deadspin piece, Kluwe called Priefer a "bigot" and claimed Frazier and general manager Rick Spielman were "cowards" for not taking action after Kluwe reported Priefer’s remarks.
Kluwe, one of the best statistical punters in Vikings history in his eight seasons with the team, had become well-known for his public stances on same-sex marriage rights, speaking out often in support of equal rights both locally and nationally. But after a season in which he was constantly in the news, Kluwe was released in the offseason.
The Vikings hired two outside lawyers, former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnusson and U.S. Department of Justice trial attorney Chris Madel, to investigate Kluwe’s allegations.
Kluwe, dressed in a sport coat covering a T-shirt that read "Punters are People Too," said the team reneged on a promise to release the findings of the report. Halunen said the two sides were working on a settlement when he was told Monday that the findings wouldn’t be released to him or Kluwe.
The Vikings contend they never said the findings would be released. Shortly before Kluwe’s press conference, the team released a statement that included: "As Magnuson and Madel confirmed today, the Vikings have never made or broken promises as Kluwe and his attorney Clayton Halunen have claimed. The Vikings have also never engaged in the various comments that Kluwe and Halunen have provided to the media over the past six months."
Kluwe said he would reconsider the legal action if the findings were made public. As part of a settlement, Halunen said the two sides were working on a $1 million donation, in Kluwe’s name, to charities which work toward LGBT rights.
"We’ve, from Day 1, indicated that Chris has no inclination, no desire to be involved in litigation with the Vikings," Halunen said, adding, "He’s never been in it for the money. He was not going to take any money from it. The money is going to go to a charity."
The charges of religious discrimination are new.
"Yeah, (Priefer) said, ‘You’ll burn in hell with the gays,’ that ‘Jesus is your only savior,’" Kluwe said Tuesday. "Some were delivered mockingly, some weren’t. Some could have been trying to get a rise out of him, some very much felt like he’s saying something he means and it just felt inappropriate in a way that as they went on it went beyond locker room stuff, trying to get a rise out of someone."
Among the assertions Kluwe claimed in the Deadspin article, he wrote that Priefer said, "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows" while in a special teams meeting with Kluwe and other players present.
Preifer later said he "vehemently denied" the allegations.
Halunen said he’s heard about findings of the report, and that Priefer twice denied the claims to the investigators before relenting during a third interview after Kluwe’s allegations were corroborated by witnesses.
"I want to state here today that we do know it’s been corroborated that Priefer did in fact make the ‘nuke the gays’ comment by witnesses," Halunen said, later adding. "We also know that Chris’ claims were corroborated by many different witnesses and that this goes up to the highest ranks of Vikings management. We understand that there is evidence in the record that would connect Rick Spielman to knowledge of Chris’ reports and accusations against Priefer prior to Chris’ renewal of his contract, clearly creating a connection in time between the decision to not renew his contract and his reporting to (Vikings executive director of player development/legal) Les Pico, the players’ representative, of Priefer’s homophobic and bigoted statements."
Halunen said he met with the Vikings’ lawyers on Monday when he was apprised of the decision not to release the findings. The two sides are scheduled to meet on Thursday, as well.
Madel’s office released a statement on Monday, stating: "Chris Madel, Eric Magnuson, and Jennifer Robbins of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi L.L.P. met with Chris Kluwe’s attorney, Clayton Halunen, July 14 at 3:30 p.m. to discuss the status of the independent investigation and to arrange a meeting between Halunen and Vikings representatives for Thursday, July 17 to continue that discussion.
"At no time during the July 14 meeting did Madel, Magnuson, or Robbins tell Halunen that the Vikings ‘would not provide a copy of the report to either Kluwe or the public,’ as Halunen’s news release of this morning states. At the meeting, Halunen agreed to meet with Vikings representatives on Thursday, and that meeting is still scheduled. It is anticipated that issues relating to the investigation will be discussed at that meeting."
Kluwe, who said he would still like to play in the NFL but knows it’s unlikely after writing the Deadspin piece, said there were no instances of discrimination before he began to speak out in support of gay marriage rights, which started with another Deadspin letter.
"It all occurred after my advocacy became public," Kluwe said. "It was a complete shift in pattern of behavior. Before that, it was a very normal special teams coach-player relationship. After my initial Deadspin letter came out in, I believe it was early September, that’s when it completely changed."
Kluwe said his main concern is the release of the findings, holding the Vikings accountable after they said they would make the investigation public.
"For me, this really is just about the Vikings said for seven months that they were going to make this public and to me that’s important, because not only did I say that this is what happened, but this is something that happens in work environments across the country," Kluwe said. "And if we want to change that, then we need to know that it happens and how we can change it. And sweeping it under the rug and keeping the report private does not help us do that.
"I think it’s important that everyone is able to see what’s there. Yeah, it will probably hurt. These things always do. But the only way we’re ever going to fix it is if we acknowledge that and make changes, systematic changes all the way through the organization, up through management and say that we are not going to tolerate this kind of thing anymore. We’re not going to tolerate our people being discriminated against. So, yeah, just hope they make it public."