Chris Kluwe, the former Minnesota Vikings punter who publicly spoke out in favor of marriage equality while it was being hotly debated in Minnesota, dropped a PR bomb on his former coaches this past Thursday, summed up nicely in the headline he put on his piece at Deadspin: “I Was an NFL Player Until I Was Fired by Two Cowards and a Bigot.” The cowards in question are General Manager Rick Spielman and (now former) head coach Leslie Frazier, and the bigot would be special-teams coach Mike Priefer, and the reason Kluwe puts forward is their homophobic reactions to his public comments on marriage equality.
But lost in the story is another character who plays at least as big — and at least as troubling — a role: Vikings PR chief Bob Hagen.
As Kluwe tells the story, Hagen positioned himself as a filter to try to keep Kluwe from conducting interviews during the marriage equality political campaign. Kluwe had noticed via Twitter that various media outlets had asked for interviews via the Vikings front office, but none of those requests ever made it to him until he called Hagen on it and told him that he should pass all these requests along and let Kluwe decide for himself.
Hagen is still the head of PR for the Vikings, and once Kluwe’s Deadspin piece exploded in the news, he and the Vikings PR operation swung into action. In addition to the obvious desire to limit any damage in general, the Vikings are looking for a new head coach (having canned Frazier after the Vikings missed the playoffs), and one of the leading candidates is Priefer. Thus, in addition to being a PR headache, this mess is also creating a nightmare as the Vikings look to remake their coaching staff — a project that includes one of the major actors in Kluwe’s piece.
Hagen’s office quickly put out a statement responding to Kluwe, and as PR statements go, it started out pretty well:
The Minnesota Vikings were made aware of Chris Kluwe’s allegations for the first time today. We take them very seriously and will thoroughly review this matter.
Sounds like a good start. “We’re on the side of goodness here” say the Vikings. Thorough reviews are a sign that concerns are things being taken seriously. OK, what’s next?
As an organization, the Vikings consistently strive to create a supportive, respectful and accepting environment for all of our players, coaches and front office personnel. We do not tolerate discrimination at any level.
Nice followup, with the firm statement against hatred and the desire to have a respectful workplace. It’s the equivalent of “We like Mom and apple pie.” Next?
The team has long respected our players’ and associates’ individual rights, and, as Chris specifically stated, Vikings ownership supports and promotes tolerance, including on the subject of marriage equality. Because he was identified with the Vikings, Chris was asked to be respectful while expressing his opinions. Team ownership and management also repeatedly emphasized to Chris that the Vikings would not impinge on his right to express his views.
Hagen and Co are clearly on a roll. The statement tries to put the team’s opposition to discrimination in the best context, and expresses agreement with the parts of Kluwe’s account that are most favorable to the Vikings.
They’ve set the stage for the toughest part of the statement’s job — to address Kluwe’s charge about being fired for his off-field actions. Like a team looking to kick a potentially game-winning field goal, they’ve marched down the field to get close enough for a kick, the center has hiked the ball, the holder has gotten it placed on the turf, and all that’s left is for the kicker to put it through the uprights. The kick is up, it’s long enough . . . :
Any notion that Chris was released from our football team due to his stance on marriage equality is entirely inaccurate and inconsistent with team policy. Chris was released strictly based on his football performance. We will have further comment at the appropriate time.
. . . and it’s wide right. (So to speak.)
Oh, they came sooooo close. Notice the next-to-the-last sentence? It’s hard to square future tense language in the first paragraph’s statement “we . . . will thoroughly review this matter” with the definitive and conclusive past tense language (“was released strictly based on”) of the last paragraph. In fact, it’s the kind of language one uses after a review is over.
In the time it took them to write three paragraphs, the thorough review was completed?
Given that the Vikings followed this up the next day by hiring two high-powered and well-respected Minnesota lawyers with no connection to the team (former MN Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and former DOJ lawyer Chris Madel) to conduct the investigation, it seems that someone thinks the review isn’t over yet.
But why did Hagen & Co. say that it was? Two possibilities suggest themselves. No, make that three.
First, Hagen could be bad at his job, and doesn’t understand how an investigation works (“First you investigate, then you draw conclusions.”). Second, Hagen is a manipulative PR flack, trying to have his cake (“we don’t discriminate!”) and eat it too (“Nothing to see here. Move along, move along . . .”). Then there’s the third possibility: he’s bad at his job of being a manipulative flack.
(Note to Vikings owner Zygi Wilf: you really need a better PR chief, who understands that the cart goes behind the horse and not in front of it.)
Spielman, Frazier, and especially Priefer will be at the center of the investigation, but Magnuson and Madel ought to have some rather pointed questions for Hagen as well. He sure looks like he’s trying to cover something up, even before the investigation gets started.
Photo h/t to John Trainor, and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license