MANKATO, Minn. — With the Minnesota Vikings reporting to training camp Thursday, special teams coach Mike Priefer was apologetic regarding his homophobic comments, which came to light after an investigation into claims made by former punter Chris Kluwe.
Priefer will be suspended without pay for the first three games of the regular season and will undergo sensitivity training after Kluwe brought to light alleged comments, which included Priefer saying, "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. Kluwe was outspoken in his support of equal rights, particularly gay marriage rights which were being voted on in Minnesota.
Kluwe brought the allegations against Priefer and the team in January, which prompted the Vikings to hire independent counsel to investigate Kluwe’s claims. The findings were released last week, with long snapper Cullen Loeffler corroborating one homophobic comment made in a meeting by Priefer.
"I’d like to set a higher standard for myself: a higher standard of conduct, a higher standard of work ethic, a higher standard of being a father and a husband, and I expect a lot from my players as well," Priefer said Thursday. "I say the same things to them when we coach them. We talk a lot about setting high standards for yourself, whether in preparation or performance. My wife and I raise our children this way in terms of representing our name, our last name, and what that means, and remembering who you are.
"In this regard, in this situation, with my comment, I’ve failed. I didn’t just go below the bar. I went way below the bar. I made a mistake. I was wrong. I brought a lot of undue attention to the Minnesota Vikings’ organization and brought an unwanted distraction, and I apologize."
Priefer, entering his fourth season as the team’s special teams coach, will have a chance to have the suspension lessened by one game. Following sensitivity training, the team’s ownership will review Priefer’s situation and then could determine to make his suspension two games.
General manager Rick Spielman said the team has set up for Priefer to meet with an outside firm for sensitivity training. Currently, Priefer will have no contact with the team from the Monday before the team’s Week 1 game at St. Louis and will be able to return the Monday following the Week 3 game against the New Orleans Saints.
Spielman didn’t comment directly when asked if the team thought about firing Priefer.
"You know, when the report came out last Friday I know we reviewed everything and this was what we thought, and our ownership thought, was the best course of action," Spielman said.
When asked if he was concerned about losing his job, Priefer replied: "You know, I figured out a long time ago that I can only control what I can control, and the rest of it I’ll go batty if I think about it all the time. So I try not to think about it and just came out every day to try to do my job."
Priefer did say he has "learned a lesson."
"Well, I’m not going to change the way I coach and I’m not going to change the way I teach, but I’ve learned a lesson," Priefer said. "That’s the great thing about this situation. I’m going to look back and something good has got to come from this, and that’s going to be it, that I learned a hard lesson. I’ve got to be sensitive to other people in what I say, and that’s not going to happen again."
Priefer had denied the allegations in his first two interviews with the investigators until finally relenting during the third interview following Loeffler’s testimony.
Asked whether Spielman to rebuild trust within the organization, Spielman said: "He’s made a mistake and he owned up to that mistake. And he’s going to serve his suspension, and then we’re going to move on. But as far as everything else goes, we’re looking forward to getting to work down here and that’s the most important thing is to get ready for the season."
Loeffler originally spoke with Les Pico, the Vikings’ executive director of player development/legal, when asked by Kluwe, according to the findings of the investigation, and ultimately supported Kluwe’s claims.
"I never thought that it was a serious comment," Loeffler said. "I always thought it was a joke. They both laughed about it. I never thought anything about it."
Asked again about the scenario, Loeffler said Kluwe originally laughed at Priefer’s comment.
Loeffler said he hasn’t talked with Kluwe since before the allegations became public in January. Loeffler said he was never worried about his job for confirming Priefer’s comments.
"It wasn’t difficult," Loeffler said. "I just told the truth, as the Vikings wanted me to tell the truth. They’ve been supportive throughout the process and it wasn’t hard for me at all."
Neither Priefer nor Spielman would divulge information from the investigation. Priefer said he hopes he’s already rebuilding the credibility in the organization.
"The biggest thing I regret is I brought a lot of bad publicity to the Minnesota Vikings, and I feel like I let my family down," Priefer said.
Priefer said he respects the three-game suspension and decision by Minnesota’s owners, Mark and Zygi Wilf. Spielman said he’s working with coach Mike Zimmer on a "contingency plan" for the time Priefer will miss.
The Vikings are looking inside the organization and have assistant special teams coach Ryan Ficken on the staff. Spielman and Zimmer wouldn’t dismiss bringing in another coach during Priefer’s absence.
"We all make mistakes," Zimmer said. "We all try to learn from our mistakes. And I think this guy is a very high-character, quality person that I want to stand behind. Honestly, I want to stand behind him because I know what is inside of him, I know what’s in his heart. And he made a mistake, and if anyone here hasn’t made a mistake, I want you to raise your hand, because I know I’ve made plenty."
Spielman, Zimmer and members of the team spoke about the situation for the first time Thursday as players and coaches reported to Minnesota State University for training camp, which begins with practices Friday.
"It’s a distraction today, but tomorrow, I’ll be focused on football," Zimmer said. "We’ll be out there on the conditioning run at 3 o’clock and we’ll go about our business. I’ve been with the Dallas Cowboys and the Bengals and Atlanta and there have been distractions on every single team — so-called distractions — but the media and the fans make it out to be a little bit bigger of a distraction than it is for the football team. We try to go out and focus on our business and go about it. Really, the distraction is the questions that you get and having to figure out what to say. But it is what it is and we’re just going to move forward and go on."