Chris Kluwe should know better.
Earlier this week, Kluwe, the Minnesota Vikings punter, called Peyton Manning and Drew Brees greedy douchebags on his Twitter feed — validating, from a source who wears an NFL uniform, the media's assertion that the lockout is all about greedy players. But by relying on gossipy football media outlets for facts about CBA negotiations, then taking to Twitter to blast some of the league's most respected names, Chris Kluwe made a mistake that ensures he'll be respected even less than he already is, if that's possible.
Punters are at the absolute bottom of the totem pole on an NFL roster, the very last man. If the team plane crashed on a deserted island, he'd be dinner as soon as the food ran out. Most of them know this and understand that it's in their best interest to keep quiet.
Punters don't get to call other players douchebags. Again, every other kicker in the league knows this, and keeps it all in perspective. Kluwe's job, juxtaposed with the duties of his teammates, screams douchebaggery. And now Kluwe has compounded his lack of status by exposing himself as a turncoat.
If it is his goal to slide into a post-punter career as a presumptuous and accusatory football analyst, then he has set himself up quite nicely, making fast friends with the likes of Mike Florio and Jim Rome. But if his intent was to offer something resembling leadership, he has failed miserably.
In an NFL locker room, there are a handful of players who do the talking. When something needs to be said, it is one of these men who will speak up. The rest of the players sit back and let things take shape, knowing that it is far better to stay silent than to speak prematurely or out of turn.
The right to speak is earned, and the vetting process, although unspoken, is crystal clear. You speak up when your teammates start looking to you for guidance, not because you talk a lot, or because you draw cartoons on a locker room white board, but because you have been tested on the field and proven your worth.
That's why it's been easy for everyone else in the league to keep quiet about the negotiations during this critical time: This locker room culture extends across the entire league. In the NFL, there is an undeniable feeling that it's Us vs. Them. Us is the players. Them is everyone else: coaches, owners, media, etc. To be oblivious to this theme is nearly unforgivable.
Although Kluwe might have thought he was speaking for his peers, he most surely wasn't. His peers would hope that Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and anyone else who finds himself in the rare position of having leverage against the league would use that leverage wisely and get every possible cent out of an NFL power structure that they have come to see as oppressive and exploitative.
It's not surprising that Kluwe could be so out of touch. Punters live in a small, insulated bubble that no one else cares to enter. They are not included in the inside jokes and they're not invited to parties. Their lockers are tucked in a dark corner of the locker room, where they sit and read crime novels while the rest of the team watches film and learns a playbook that will be dead in a week, replaced by a new one.
The plays never change for a punter. During practice, while the rest of the team does football things, the punter stands off in space with his only two friends, the kicker and the snapper, reciting movie quotes and practicing his golf swing. When his moment finally arrives, and the coach yells, "Punt team!" he takes his place 15 yards behind the snapper and, in the span of 10 minutes, executes five or 10 punts.
Covering punt after punt in practice is grueling work for 10 of the 11 members of the punt team. The punter, however, stands completely still. Half of his kicks sputter off the side of his foot, sending his punt team scrambling to stay in their lanes trying to cover the wayward ball. If they are unable to maintain their lane integrity and the returner splits them, it's the players on the coverage unit, not the punter, who get verbally abused by the coach. Coaches — well, coaches who aren't Tom Coughlin — have long since discovered the futility of berating a kicker. Other players can handle it, but not kickers. They tend to shrink, retreating further into the shell of their insecurities.
After punt team is done, the punter mope-jogs to the sideline where he disappears once more into the protoplasm of his irrelevance. No one knows he's there. No one would know if he left. And no one would care.
For three hours on game day, by stepping on the field, the punter runs the risk of having to, just maybe, if shit goes really wrong, touch someone on a football field. But just in case, the NFL has made special rules to protect him from that menacing possibility. You can't hit him. You can't block him. You can't touch him, presumably because he might shatter. He is protected even more than the superstar quarterbacks he Twitter-fucked, as if the act of kicking a football were the most sacred motion on a football field.
He can be seen in a state near total ecstasy if he drops a punt inside the 5-yard line and has it downed by a hustling teammate, pumping his fist heroically. Likewise, he can be seen utterly disgusted if that teammate allows the oblong ball to bounce into the end zone for a touchback. Both reactions would look stupid to an actual member of the team if he were paying any attention, which he isn't. No one is.
But perhaps the moment most indicative of the separation between punter and football player is when one of his punts is returned for a touchdown. The punter, the nominal last line of defense, appears to be an invertebrate on a sheet of ice as he squirms into a position to make the tackle. His eyes widen and he splays his arms out to the side as if to embrace a giant teddy bear. The returner, with a quick head nod, sends the punter blindly lurching to the wrong side, into a Jell-O-like pile of his own shortcomings. That taken care of, he scoots off down the sideline for a touchdown.
When the team watches the film together the next day, it will not surprise them at all to see how feeble the punter looks. This will only sink him deeper into his locker and into his crime novels, searching harder for a way to convince himself that he is one of the guys, that when he speaks up, he is speaking for his peers. But he isn't. And he shouldn't.
Echoing the media's trite narrative — those selfish players! — is a fool's errand, and couldn't be any stupider for someone who must keep the company of real NFL players, who know what it means to sacrifice. Kluwe's satirical white board drawings and CBA negotiation parodies were harmless enough, I suppose, but even those echoed the sentiment of conventional media wisdom. Player wisdom is beyond him. It is true that greed is the operative byword, but it is not the greed of Manning or Brees or Mankins. It's Kluwe's greedy use of his roster spot as a platform from which to shit into cyberspace, knowing that people will pay attention. Well, now they are.