Three weeks ago, before the NFL’s Wild Card Playoff weekend, there were two stories that dominated league headlines besides the weather conditions. First, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe leveled accusations in a Deadspin.com article that his gay rights activism played a role in his release by the team in May 2013, and that his Special Teams coach Mike Priefer had made multiple homophobic remarks. Secondly, out of the four playoff games scheduled for the weekend, three were struggling to sell out their tickets and avoid a local television blackout (they ultimately dodged a blackout with several local retailers buying the remaining tickets). These two seemingly unrelated events are in fact linked by more than the time of their occurrence, as the reader will see by the end of this article.
Chris Kluwe is well known for speaking his mind about many political topics, expressing his anger over being compensated more than teachers, for instance. But in particular, he has been recognized for his vocal support of same-sex marriage; in fact in April 2013 he was named the Grand Marshal [PDF] of the Twin Cities PRIDE celebration. He’s also publicly defended other NFL players who support gay marriage to the point of using profanity against Maryland Delegate Emmet Burns Jr. He cares deeply about the ability of NFL players to speak out on political issues, but it’s no secret that NFL teams don’t like it when players make controversial headlines outside the locker room. It therefore makes it plausible that the Vikings would have no problem trying to quiet down a supporting cast player like Kluwe, as he claims they did through Head Coach Leslie Frazier and General Manager Rick Spielman. When Kluwe told Frazier he “would like to talk with anyone who was interested” in the media, it set him down a course that eventually got him released, according to his account.
On the other hand, Kluwe’s indictment of Coach Priefer’s bigotry seems uncertain considering he alleges Priefer to have “said on multiple occasions that I would wind up burning in hell with the gays, and that the only truth was Jesus Christ and the Bible”. This statement is clichéd enough to be incredulous, especially given the fact that Priefer said in June of 2013, “I think, based on what he’s done in his career, as a man and as an athlete, and for anybody that stands up for what he believes in like Chris did, I have a lot of respect for guys like that”. For what it’s worth, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh has strongly defended the Vikings coaches, claiming Kluwe’s release was football related, though detractors might suggest he’s defending his job by defending his bosses. Priefer denies Kluwe’s accusations saying “I personally have gay family members who I love and support”.
Friction between Priefer and Kluwe likely existed; whether or not Kluwe’s claims of bigotry are exaggerated, fabricated, or accurate is hard to ascertain. Suffice to say, however, that Kluwe is not only frank, but evidently scorns being tactful or diplomatic, as demonstrated on multiple occasions. He would do well to read what Ben Franklin had to say about arguing. It is clear that at least Priefer was frustrated with Kluwe’s outspokenness, if not in regard to his gay marriage advocacy then at least with his campaign to get Ray Guy to the Hall of Fame. Chris Kluwe became a distraction because the Vikings treated him as a distraction; if they had ignored him and let him speak his mind, they would be respecting his rights and avoiding this PR nightmare. At the same time, perhaps Kluwe should refrain from calling people #douchebags and see how it affects his relationships. Maybe he would still have a job.
As Kluwe himself suggested in his article, he may not have been fired entirely because he chose to be more politically outspoken or abrasive than other players. “Whether it’s my age, my minimum veteran salary, my habit of speaking my mind, or (most likely) a combination of all three”, he laments, “my time as a football player is done”. What he fails to mention in his recent article is that after his release he was a member of the Oakland Raiders in the following preseason, though ultimately he was cut before the regular season in favor of second-year player Marquette King. While the Vikings may have disliked Klewe’s behavior, evidently he was skilled enough to have a shot with another team, though at both franchises he was replaced by a younger player (the Vikings drafted rookie Jeff Locke to replace Kluwe).
The “minimum veteran salary” Kluwe mentions refers to a wage floor scale set by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed by the NFL and the NFL Players’ Association in 2011. Rookies earned a minimum of $405,000 in 2013 while players like Marquette King who have completed a season earned at least $480,000. Kluwe, who has played eight years in the NFL, must be compensated at least $840,000 in 2013. Punters, kickers, and long snappers are critical, but typically compensated near the minimum levels since most NFL teams carry one player at those positions during the regular season, yet due to the large number of Division I college football programs (with larger rosters than the NFL), many special teams players are available who can produce nearly as well as those on an NFL roster. Thus the supply of competent labor far exceeds demand. Also, as a recent article in The Atlantic explains, “Kickers and punters need specialized instruction, and their positions are perhaps the ones in which players can improve the most on their natural talent through training”. Potential kickers or punters are less restricted by physical attributes, making them a less scarce resource than “skill position” players.
Ostensibly, the minimum salary is intended to be a “benefit”, designed to guarantee a marginal veteran player higher compensation than a rookie. It also lets a team basically spend money to save money… and no, this isn’t extreme couponing: as a player signed at or near the minimum may have over a third of their salary discounted from the team salary cap, teams are given an incentive to sign more veteran players to their roster. This way it is possible to buy more talent than what a team’s cap number really represents, thus a team with a $120 million cap figure may really be paying $130 million or more in base wages, not to mention signing bonuses. But another way to look at it, as ESPN’s Kevin Seifert asserts, is that “the veteran minimum salary benefit wasn’t designed to help [veterans] get market-level deals. It [was] intended as a way to support the higher base salaries the CBA called for”. More money saved from veterans means more money to pay skill position players absurd amounts, and besides, teams will still save money to sign a young player if possible.
It appears NFL salaries are inflated overall because of the minimum wage scales, not only because the minimum rates are used as a base point by which valuable players can measure their asking price, but also because teams use the money saved by exercising this option to directly fund higher salaries. As with any price floor, a wage floor compels consumers (in this case employers ) to constrain their purchases of a product (in this case labor/employees). Thus fewer veteran punters or kickers can be retained viably by NFL team owners, although they are also constrained artificially by a salary cap and a limit of 53 active players. Employers affected by wage floors can respond with some mixture of restricting employment and price increases. Wage floors may cause price hikes in products to sustain employee wages, so long as competitors cannot severely undercut those higher prices. One can clearly see this effect when traveling to Canada, where the minimum wage is $9.95 to $11 per hour (depending on the province), yet this higher wage floor hardly has any effect on purchasing power as almost everything from cars to aspirin costs substantially more. (Don’t let this discourage your travel plans, though; the abundance of civility and Tim Hortons you’ll find make a trip to our northern neighbor well worth it!)
Perhaps wage controls are why, without competition from other leagues, the NFL stadium experience is ridiculously expensive, as Chris Kluwe complained about in 2011, “Charging outrageous sums for drinks, seats, and seat licenses, while a great moneymaker now, is definitely counterproductive in the long run”. Many have cited these price factors as a major reason for three of the four playoff games having trouble selling tickets for Wild Card weekend. The NFL generates enormous revenue because it lacks competition, which allows for many salaries in the millions, but the wage floors also contribute to inordinately high franchise player wages. They’re also part of the reason why Kluwe has to complain about being paid so much more than the $55,000 median teacher salary he desires to see raised, and unfortunately they are probably a reason why he’s unemployed right now. After tackling marriage laws, I suggest Kluwe’s next crusade be one that brings market forces to the NFL and breaks many of the anti-trust exemptions and public funding sources the league enjoys at the expense of both the American taxpayer and any potential competitors. He also shouldn’t be so doubtful of his return to the NFL labor market, so long as he remembers civility is a resource scarcer than five second hangtime.