So Chris Kluwe blew up the Internet last week with this post, entitled "I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot," and the sports world instantly split into two factions: Those who cheered on Kluwe, and those who thought he was a disgruntled ex-punter looking for revenge and working in cahoots with BIG GAY. Whether you believe that Kluwe was canned for his politics, or because he was a statistically average punter who could be replaced with cheaper labor (as Kluwe points out, it's possible for both cases to be true—that his politics made it easier for the Vikings to make a justifiable football decision), I think we can all agree that football teams—as well as many football coaches, fans, and media members—do NOT care for "distractions." Even Kluwe himself didn't want to be seen in that light.
I still have friends on the Vikings, and opening up something like this during the season would not help them focus on their jobs.
"Distractions" has been a catchall term in football for years and years, and it remains both pervasive and utterly meaningless. "Those distractions are getting old for me," Kluwe's special-teams coordinator, Mike "Nuke the Gays" Priefer, told reporters in 2012, referring to the punter's "Vote Ray Guy" protest. "The punter can't be a distraction," writes this guy. Anything involving a football figure that isn't strictly about football is a potential distraction. Gay NFL player coming out? "Distraction," Mike Florio worries. Rex Ryan's foot fetish? "Could snowball into a distraction," a reporter suggests. Richie Incognito? "A distraction for the Dolphins," Ed Werder says. (Miami went on to win four of its next six.) Tebow? "Distraction," everyone says.
It's a useful word, for coaches and reporters alike. It betrays no values, no bias. A distraction is just a thing you can point to in the corner of the room. (It's particularly funny when journalists talk about distractions. They're the instruments of distraction, after all. It's like a fart asking, "How will you deal with the smell?"). No one needs to address the substance of the thing doing the distracting, only the possibility that, for three or four minutes during the week, the thing might dare interfere with FOOTBALL. Football teams do not like it when players bring so-called distractions up, and they do not like it when the media dare to ask non-footbally, distraction-y questions at a press conference. ("Hey Coach, did you know Aaron Hernandez liked killin' folk?") Football must stay focused on football at all times, or else the whole world blows up or something.
All the neurotic talk about "distractions" reveals a funny thing about the locker room. It's as if the psyche of a football team is some impossibly delicate thing that cracks the second the outside world sneaks in. Football purports to be the manliest sport in the universe, and yet—on a social level—it operates like a fucking country club. We do not bring up "unpleasantries" in football. That would be rude!
You will see this in full effect tonight during the national title game. How many times do you think the word "rape" will be uttered during the game broadcast tonight? Zero? Negative two? I bet ESPN handed out a little flyer to personnel that said OH GOD PLEASE DON'T SAY RAPE ON THE AIR. That way, the audience doesn't have to think about how strange it is that Florida State is on the verge of winning a national title despite maybe-possibly-allegedly-depends-on-whom-you-believe having a rapist at the helm. I don't know that Jameis Winston raped that woman, and it's not fair to brand him as a criminal, but I assure you: It will be fucking weird when the entire episode is boiled down to "off-field issues" by Brent and Herbie for three hours this evening.
That's how it went after word of the accusation first trickled out in November. The substance of the case mattered only insofar as any investigation might get in the way of a big season for both FSU and Jameis Winston. "Teams have dealt with off-field distractions before," the Los Angeles Times assured us. "How will these off-field distractions affect his leadership role on this team?" a reporter asked coach Jimbo Fisher. It turned out Winston was fine. He showed "no signs of distraction" in his first game after the accusations were made public—a surprise, perhaps, "given all the off-the-field drama that's been surrounding" him. A "season's worth of distractions never knocked Winston off course," ESPN wrote in December. Maybe that's because he talked to Johnny Football about handling "off-field distractions."
Johnny Football's "distraction" was about selling his autograph, not about raping a woman, but that's the beauty of the word "distraction." It's a big, stupid word that can house pretty much anything: drugs, dong shots, player feuds, NCAA violations, criminal charges. It's like a Photoshop tool that announcers abuse over and over again (not all of them—ESPN's Mike Tirico has become so refreshingly blunt that he feels like an anomaly), as if daring to be any more explicit would constitute some horrific breach of etiquette, with thousands of people mobbing the booth and screaming DURRRR STICK TO SPORTS STICK TO SPORTS STICK TO SPORTS DURRRRR. If it doesn't fit into a tidy, Olympics-ready 45-second anecdote from Michele Tafoya down on the sideline, it gets thrown into the "off-the-field distractions" bin.
I fucking hate this. I hate that my favorite sport acts like some buzzcut dad from 1956 who sits over in the corner reading the paper and doesn't say a fucking word to you unless you decide to grow a ponytail one day. Life is a fucking distraction, and football seems determined to keep up the football-only facade despite the fact that life creeps in at every possible opportunity. OH NO! BAD LIFE! SHOO SHOO, GO AWAY! And besides, football is the biggest distraction of all! When people say "I just want to focus on football," they're basically saying, "I just want to focus on this big distraction over here. OOOH SHINY!"
I think that's why people recoiled at that back-slappy press conference after Winston had his charges dropped. It wasn't simply that the state attorney and his cohorts were laughing and giggling; it's that you could sense the profound RELIEF emanating from the room. "Thank God, now we can stick to sports again! We almost had to stop there for a second and consider if our big-time college football program was having a corrosive impact on the community! PHEW!"
Worst of all, this is a sport that CHOOSES its distractions. My favorite player, Adrian Peterson, fathered a love child who ended up being murdered earlier this season. But there's not a soul on Earth (save for maybe Phil Mushnick) who was like, "Boy, they better cut that guy! What with his distractions and all!" You can get away with distractions if you happen to be very good, and you can get away with them if they can be warped into some kind of positive narrative. (Look at him play through the grief!) We pick and choose our distractions, which means they aren't really distractions at all. They are strategically placed pockets of horseshit. If we don't like a distraction—Kluwe supporting the gays, for instance—we brand it. We say Kluwe is "outspoken" (OMG HE LIKES TALKIN'!!!!! THAT'S A DANGER TO THE REPUBLIC!) and let people vilify him as they see fit.
Vikings safety Harrison Smith publicly sided with the team in Kluwe's case, but he also said publicly that Kluwe was never a D-word to the Vikings when he was with them. If you ever ask a football player about distractions, he will almost always tell you that he doesn't give a shit. This is because football players are human beings who have, you know, lives. They're quite used to life intruding on their jobs. But the culture surrounding these players is apparently not, and will do anything in its power to make sure the distractions it doesn't care for are snuffed out and dealt with appropriately. And to these people, I would just like to say: Fuck you. There are no distractions. Stick to life, assholes.