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GIANT AMBITION

A lot of people are down on the Giants after a less than mediocre 2013 season (7-9), but remember this: Just three years ago they went into the playoffs 9-7 and won the Super Bowl! This year, there are a lot of changes: the retirement of four-time Pro Bowl guard Chris Snee and the loss of explosive running back David Wilson (for medical reasons). Also, the Giants’ great hope for this year, LSU wide receiver O’Dell Beckham, the No. 11 draft pick in the nation this year, has a torn hamstring and won’t be in the lineup for at least a few weeks. Add to the mix Coach Tom Coughlin’s decision to switch the team from its traditional “ground-and-pound” to the flashy West Coast Offense — which means Eli Manning must pass, pass, pass! — and this could be a challenging year, to say the least. But it’s football time again, and there is nothing like actually going to a game instead of settling down on the sofa with a bowl of chips. Watching the diehard Giants fanatics in person is a bonus. We’ll soon find out if Eli can get some pass protection and if the reconstructed team can withstand a tough season. But for now, enjoy today’s home opener against the Arizona Cardinals.

Sun., Sept. 14, 1 p.m., 2014

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A Legal Hail Mary Might Throw the NFL’s $765 Million Concussion Settlement for a Loss

On November 13, former Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins wide receiver Antwaan Randle El sued the National Football League in federal court in Manhattan, along with three other retired players and their families. The 43-page complaint reads like an indictment, alleging that the league “has done everything in its power to hide the issue and mislead players concerning the risks associated with concussions.” Randle El, once known for his electrifying kick returns, now says he suffers “tingling/numbness in his hands and/or fingers” and other symptoms of latent brain disease.

“It’s like reading a horror story, what these guys have been through,” says Norman Abood, Randle El’s attorney. “Players have literally sacrificed themselves on the field for the NFL to be successful.”

In August, when the NFL reached a tentative $765 million deal to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by thousands of former players suffering debilitating health problems caused by concussions, the backlash was as jarring as a linebacker leveling a wide receiver on a crossing route. Fans, pundits, and players fumed that the league, which generates nearly $10 billion in annual revenue, got off cheap.

Facing allegations that it deliberately deceived players and the public about the dangers of repeated blows to the head, the NFL had apparently dodged a prolonged court battle and quelled a brewing public relations disaster. The terms of the agreement — still awaiting a judge’s approval — explicitly state that the league does not admit any wrongdoing. If distributed evenly among all the players, the package would be worth roughly $170,000 per person — a meager sum when medical costs and permanent debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s are involved.

“This NFL settlement reminds me of Henry Hill when he meets Paulie at the end of Goodfellas,” New York Post sports columnist Mike Vaccaro tweeted the day the deal was announced. “‘$170K he gave me. $170K for a lifetime.'”

But attorneys tell the Voice that a spate of new cases like Randle El’s could force the league back to the bargaining table. The legal equivalent of a Hail Mary, the scenario would require hundreds of additional players to file grievances, compelling the judge in the case to declare the $765 million offer insufficient.

“If you have enough critical mass, you can derail that settlement,” says Timothy Epstein, a sports law attorney in Chicago and adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. “All these other lawsuits that are popping up, what they’re saying is, ‘This settlement is not going to fairly compensate my client. We think we can get a better deal.’ If enough of those get filed, it could convince the judge to say, ‘This is not good enough; you have to try again.'”

Abood says he’s uncertain whether his clients will join in the settlement or “pursue independent courses of actions.” Challenging the NFL head-to-head in court, however, entails years of legal wrangling with no guarantee of victory. It’s like playing the worst lottery ever: When your health is poor and you have bills to pay, do you take the smaller lump sum right away or hope for a bigger jackpot years down the road?

“It becomes an evaluation of what’s in the best interest of your clients,” Abood says. “How do you get them benefits sooner rather than later? It becomes a matter of expediency.”

Most players thus far have opted for the immediate, guaranteed money. Altogether, the NFL’s settlement covers 297 lawsuits brought by more than 4,800 retired players from the 1940s to the present, including Hall of Famers Bruce Smith, Eric Dickerson, and the late Junior Seau, who committed suicide last year and was later found to have concussion-related brain damage. The cases were merged earlier this year under a special federal legal procedure called MDL (short for multidistrict litigation), designed to make complex lawsuits less time-consuming. The litigation includes 275 former New York Giants players and an equal number of ex-Jets, according to a database assembled last year by the Washington Times. A separate but similar class-action lawsuit is still pending against helmet manufacturer Riddell.

Each case is its own nightmare, with many men describing symptoms including dementia, migraines, blurred vision, and severe depression. Precisely how much each player receives will be decided by a yet-to-be-determined “matrix” that will reportedly take into account the severity of their conditions and the length of their careers. According to a confidential letter from the NFL described by the New York Times in October, “only players with the most severe brain injuries would be compensated, and the estates of retirees who died before 2006 would be excluded.”

Christopher A. Seeger, one of the lead attorneys in the MDL, tells the Voice in a written statement that the $765 million from the NFL will face further scrutiny, but he feels it will prove more than enough.

“As the approval process moves forward, analysis from economists, actuaries and medical experts will be presented to the court,” Seeger writes. “These reports will confirm that the programs established by the settlement will be sufficiently funded to meet their obligations for all eligible retired players.”

The stakes are high. If the pending deal is made official, current and future NFL players will essentially be barred from suing their former employer over concussions. According to Epstein, the issue is one of “informed consent.” While former players can say they were led to believe concussions involved no lasting dangers, athletes today can no longer plead ignorance. Epstein says the NFL may also seek immunity in the settlement from future concussion lawsuits.

“They want to buy their peace,” says Epstein. “The NFL is not going to want to pay out this money and then have to deal with other players out there who are current or former players. We don’t know exactly what those final terms will be yet, and what level it will foreclose people down the line from having their own individual suits.”

Cases like the one brought by Randle El stand to complicate matters. Similar lawsuits involving ex-players were filed in September in Louisiana and Illinois, and all attorneys interviewed for this story said they expect more in the coming weeks. According to NFL.com, there are approximately 12,000 living former NFL players. Roughly one-third of them are already involved in concussion litigation, making Epstein’s scenario of dozens or hundreds of additional lawsuits seem unlikely but within the realm of possibility.

Of course, as Randle El’s attorney Abood notes, there’s also the chance of backfire if the judge elects to uphold the existing deal. The more people vying for a slice of the $765 million pie, the less there is to go around for everyone else.

“It’s simple arithmetic,” Abood says. “The more people you add in, the fewer benefits are available. It appears to be a very good deal for the league.”

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Tracing the Immediate Aftermath of the Kennedy Assassination in Parkland

“What a shitty place to die.”

Whatever your feelings about Dallas, that’s a pretty harsh assessment. Then again, the character in Peter Landesman’s well-intentioned but unfulfilling Parkland who says it, an aide to fallen President John F. Kennedy, can probably be forgiven for his snotty Yankee attitude.

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK (by the coward Lee Harvey Oswald). Prepare yourself for a deluge of articles, thinkpieces, hashtags, and lists (JFK’s Hottest Mistresses!) in the coming weeks dedicated to the that act’s enduring significance. We’ll be reminded once again how it plunged the U.S. into a crisis of identity and confidence from which it would take decades to recover, and many will speculate about what might have been: Could Vietnam have been avoided? Would it still be Idlewild Airport? For Texas correspondents like myself, the event is especially bittersweet, considering the negative associations it conjured for many outside the state.

Parkland hints at the enormity of what took place on November 22, 1963, but largely confines itself to the immediate aftermath of the assassination. Based on prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book Four Days in November, the film shifts between several perspectives: the doctors and nurses of Parkland Memorial Hospital, the FBI agents tracking the killer and the Secret Service men dealing with the fallout, dressmaker Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who shot the most famous home movie in history, and Oswald’s family—specifically his brother, Robert (James Badge Dale), and mother, Marguerite (Jacki Weaver)—who have sharply divergent reactions to the news of their family member’s actions.

Landesman eschews reenactments in favor of splicing his actors into archival footage, avoiding a documentary feel and keeping the focus on those chaotic hours just after the shooting. Reactions are confined to those directly involved, with the only indications of a widening gyre of grief and confusion coming from clips of the now-famous elegies of Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley.

Parkland’s more powerful scenes come early on, when Kennedy is rushed to the hospital’s emergency room. As the staff’s attempts to save him grow more desperate, the president’s blood increasingly covers the room—and the doctors and nurses. This comes in stark contrast to the washed-out hues of Zapruder’s historic film, and is in a way symbolic of the far-reaching implications of the crime: It touches everyone.

Following Kennedy’s death, tempers flare in the Secret Service, both in response to a fruitless attempt by the medical examiner to keep Kennedy’s body in Dallas (less a sinister government plot than jurisdictional pissing match, it seems) and to criticisms of the local team. The latter is led by Dallas agent Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), who explodes after being told, “You blew it.” Also up for blame is the FBI, in the person of James Hosty (Ron Livingston at his hangdog-ingest), the agent who had been tasked with investigating Oswald upon his return from the Soviet Union in 1962.

It’s in the film’s second half that Parkland goes all Tony Romo and fumbles. Instead of becoming truly engrossing, it threatens to descend into unreserved melodrama, complete with a score by James Newton Howard that would fit any early episode of The West Wing.

Ironically enough, the noblest character depicted is Bob Oswald, an honest, hardworking, and otherwise unremarkable man plunged into a surreal and heretofore unimaginable situation: brother to a presidential assassin, his name forever linked to one of the most notorious criminals of the 20th century. Dale admirably captures this pathos, displaying his vulnerability at his brother’s funeral, where he practically begs reporters in attendance to serve as pallbearers for a man they likely considered undeserving of a proper burial. All this is juxtaposed in direct (and obvious) contrast to the massive turnout for Kennedy’s funeral procession.

Landesman ignores any conspiracy angles, not counting Lee Harvey Oswald nonchalantly telling Bob not to trust “so-called evidence” and Marguerite’s repeated assertions that Lee was a covert U.S. intelligence operative. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, considering Bugliosi famously penned a pro–Warren Commission book a few years ago. And it isn’t as if Lee Harvey and his mom are unimpeachable sources.

But for a film about such a momentous event, the cast doesn’t always rise to the occasion. Dale, Giamatti, and Marcia Gay Harden (as Parkland’s head nurse) are convincing, but it’s a lot harder to sell an unshaven Zac Efron (as Dr. Jim Carrico) or baby-faced Colin Hanks (as Parkland’s chief resident)—having his father on board as executive producer probably didn’t hurt.

Half a century on, it’s impossible to deny the lingering impact of Kennedy’s death on the national psyche. And yet, in spite of Bob Oswald’s fears, his family name hasn’t been forever blackened. (Anyone born after 1995 is more likely to recognize “Oswald” from the eponymous Nick Jr. TV show). However, I’ll maintain that, despite the continued existence of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Dallas is no worse a place to die than anywhere else. And whatever Texas’s other flaws, as Parkland shows, its citizens proved their mettle.

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When Not Muddled in Superfluous Details, the Lights Shine Bright on a Serious Epidemic in The United States of Football

The United States of Football is essentially the opposite of Friday Night Lights. A feel-bad documentary about the concussion epidemic in the NFL—somehow only recently become an issue—more than one of its interviewees died between the time they were filmed and the project’s completion. Director Sean Pamphilon, best known as the man who leaked audio of the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal last year, veers between the informative (a hard look at a culture that promotes dangerous playing styles from a very early age) and the superfluous (an inordinate amount of attention paid to offensive-tackle-turned-activist Kyle Turley’s band) throughout, and doesn’t always strike a workable balance. Probably the most interesting thing he does is spotlight the players’ wives who have been pivotal in bringing attention to the issue and forcing the NFL’s into finally taking some semblance of action over the last few years. Pamphilon seems to fancy himself the sporting world’s answer to Michael Moore, spending a good portion of the movie trying to track down NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the same vein as Moore did in Roger & Me, but has little of the polarizing documentarian’s flair as a filmmaker. He won’t wow you with his skill behind the camera, but you’ll likely still find yourself nodding your head in frustrated agreement.

 

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Chris Kluwe Takes a Stand

Walking across the Macalester College campus, Chris Kluwe passes unnoticed. As usual, the 30-year-old Vikings punter is dressed down: a pair of brown flip-flops, black basketball shorts, and a baggy zip-up sweatshirt. A backward World of Warcraft hat pins back his shaggy brown surfer hair, a giveaway to the Southern California boy’s roots on this cool autumn afternoon in Minnesota.

Kluwe climbs a staircase to the second floor of a glass building where an LGBT group called No H8—an offshoot of the campaign against California’s Proposition 8—holds a promotional photo shoot. No one is expecting him.

“Are you here to have your picture taken?” a woman asks as Kluwe approaches the check-in.

He nods modestly. “I’m Chris Kluwe, by the way.”

“Oh, Chris Warcraft!” she swoons, calling him by his well-followed Twitter handle. “I could fall over!”

Kluwe demurs bashfully, somewhere between cool and uncomfortable.

Two young photographers whisk him away to a white backdrop and toss him a plain V-neck. Kluwe peels off his sweatshirt and an anime T-shirt, exposing his muscular torso, the product of a workout he calls “Operation Adrian Abs” after the Vikings running back. The photographers stamp his cheek with a “No H8” logo, slap a strip of duct tape over his mouth, and begin posing him: “Cross your arms.” “Now hold them out like this.”

As word of Kluwe’s identity spreads, the shoot becomes a spectacle. A dozen students gawk, whispering to one another and snapping pictures with their camera phones. By the time Kluwe changes back into his own clothes, a line of more than 30 onlookers has formed behind him.

“More pictures?” he asks, and poses with every one of them, including the two photographers working the event.

“Thank you for what you’re doing,” one says as Kluwe heads for the door. “It means so much to so many people.”

Although homophobia is far from extinct, the tide of public opinion seems to pull inexorably against bigotry. Last year, Congress repealed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, allowing gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military. Following a string of highly publicized suicides, schools across the country finally got the message and began taking an aggressive stance against gay bullying.

Yet in 2012, none of the four major American sports have ever seen an active, openly gay player. This is why major league sports are often regarded as America’s last closet.

“During the times when I played, if I would have came out, I felt like I would have been hurt,” says Esera Tuaolo, a former Vikings player who came out publicly in 2002, after retiring a few years earlier. “You talk about bounties in New Orleans. How much do you think it would cost to take the gay guy out? To take the fag out?”

But in Minnesota’s near-deadlocked vote to constitutionally define marriage as between a man and a woman, Kluwe has emerged as the unlikely spokesman for Vote No.

“He’s going to save it for us, I swear it to you,” says Tracy Call, founder of Minnesotans for Equality. “And it’s going to be him alone.”

Having no background in politics, Kluwe sneaked into the fight through the back door after writing a passionate and colorfully vulgar letter laying out his support of gay marriage, in the process telling a Maryland legislator that gays getting married wouldn’t transform him into a “lustful cock monster.” The letter blew up on Deadspin with millions of views and hurled Kluwe into the national spotlight as football’s most aggressive straight ally to the gay rights movement.

“I teared up,” says Tuaolo. “For me, it was like Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”

In early October, Kluwe’s celebrity in the gay community crystallized when he appeared shirtless in a provocative cover story for Out magazine, which heralded Kluwe as the “unlikely face of marriage equality.” The Maryland Legislature recently awarded him an official citation for his “work in standing up for the equality of all.” And The New York Times even flew a reporter out to Minnesota to profile Kluwe.

Beyond the gay marriage debate, Kluwe’s defense of same-sex rights is further evidence that the culture in major league sports is finally changing, says Dan Woog, author of Jocks: True Stories of America’s Gay Male Athletes.

“For a long time, I equated sports and the military as sort of the two last bastions where it was OK to be anti-gay,” Woog says. “The military is now doing fine with the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and I think sports is headed there.”

On a Tuesday afternoon, Kluwe is in a place no punter wants to be: a wheelchair. As he shovels chips and salsa into his mouth, Tiffiny Carlson, a bubbly blond quadriplegic woman across the table, wants to know what he’d do if football was no longer an option.

“Open a tabletop miniature store in Southern California,” he answers without hesitation.

“Really?” she asks, tickled. “I never thought you’d be into that!”

“I’m a huge nerd,” he concedes, paying no regard to the boom mic hovering above or the two cameramen circling like vultures.

Kluwe has agreed to be the centerpiece of a documentary on spinal cord injuries, which will be used to lobby for a state law adding a surcharge to driving violations to fund curative research. His day began at 10 a.m., when he climbed into a wheelchair from bed and then rolled to the Courage Center for weight lifting, followed by a trip to a specialty-care children’s hospital.

Now he’s sitting with a group of young men and women who are also in wheelchairs, but not by choice. Inevitably, the conversation turns to the topic of the gay marriage amendment.

“It’s the same as discrimination,” Kluwe says.

“I know it is!” the young woman concurs.

“Fifty years from now, our kids will be like, ‘Why did we care about that?'” predicts Kluwe, a sci-fi aficionado. “‘We gotta discriminate against the robots!'”

A punter’s chance of actually sustaining the type of injury that would permanently confine him to a wheelchair is slim. But it’s an illuminating exercise for a guy whose entire life has revolved around the excellence of his lower limbs.

The son of a doctor and a chemical engineer, Kluwe grew up in the affluent Southern California town of Seal Beach. Even as a kid, Kluwe excelled at sports—both as a baseball pitcher and a soccer goalie—and spent much of his adolescence trying to decide which one he’d rather go pro in.

“The kids didn’t play football, because they were soccer and baseball players,” says his mother, Sandy. “Why would you play football? I didn’t think he knew the rules of the game, to be honest.”

But the fall semester of Kluwe’s freshman year at Los Alamitos high school, he decided to go out for football. A decade of pitching in baseball had caused an abnormal separation in the growth plate of his shoulder, so on the advice of an orthopedist, Kluwe tried out to be a kicker.

With a little practice, Kluwe’s soccer-ball-kicking skills translated well to booting the football. He attended a kicking camp the following summer, where the owners advised him that he could have a future in the sport.

“They told me that if I worked at it, I could pretty much almost guarantee I could get a college scholarship, and they said I’d have a pretty good shot at making it in the NFL,” Kluwe recalls. “So I was like, ‘Well, that seems like the greatest job ever, so I think I’ll practice.'”

Kluwe’s chance to prove himself came during his senior year at a playoff game against Loyola. With less than a minute to go, Loyola scored a field goal, putting them ahead by three points.

Los Alamitos got the ball back with 37 seconds to go. They started with a hook-and-ladder that bought them about 20 yards, then chucked a seven-yard pass and ran out of bounds to stop the clock on Loyola’s 43-yard line.

The team figured they could either try a Hail Mary pass to the end zone or go for a near-impossible field goal, recalls Los Alamitos coach John Barnes. When Kluwe was sent in, the other team was so sure the kick was a fake that they called a time-out.

“I remember just saying, ‘Hey, nobody’s gonna expect you to make this, but don’t miss it right or left. Kick it down the middle and see what you got,'” Barnes recalls. “And he boomed it.”

The kick sailed 60 yards through the goal posts, breaking the league’s playoff record for distance.

“The place went nuts,” Barnes says. “They started chanting his name, ‘Kluwe, Kluwe,’ the whole next three or four minutes while we got prepared for overtime.”

The team came back and won the game. Kluwe was named a USA Today “All-High School” player, and his last-second heroics would forever be legend in Los Alamitos.

“This is fucked up,” Kluwe thought as he lay awake in bed one night in early September.

The source of his unrest was an article he’d found earlier that evening on profootballtalk.com, an insider site he frequents for sports news. It was about a letter from Maryland Delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. to Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti regarding linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who had been appearing in ads advocating for gay marriage. Burns warned Bisciotti that it wasn’t appropriate for a player to take such a controversial political position.

“I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football League Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employees and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions,” Burns wrote.

After about 20 minutes of tossing and turning, Kluwe sat in front of his computer and organized his thoughts into a rebuttal.

“I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland’s state government,” it began. “Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level.”

Kluwe finished the letter in a little more than an hour and sent it to Deadspin, where he’d been tapped as a semi-regular contributor. Then he went back to bed and slept like a baby.

When Kluwe looked at his phone the next afternoon, it was exploding with notifications from his Twitter account.

“I’ll never forget it,” Kluwe says. “I kept track of the negative replies. There were probably about six of about 6,000 responses on Twitter in that first day. It was overwhelmingly positive.”

Burns walked back his statements a couple of days later, conceding in an interview with The Baltimore Sun that Ayanbadejo “has his First Amendment rights.”

But it was too late. Kluwe’s letter went viral, and he suddenly had a national audience for his campaign in favor of gay marriage. Minnesota will be one of four states facing some variation of a marriage vote this November. Based on how these races have played out across the country, the odds are against same-sex marriage advocates, says Matt Barreto, a political science professor and poll director at the University of Washington.

“It could happen, because nationally we know public opinion is moving more and more in favor of same-sex rights,” Barreto says. “But historically, if we look at the data, it doesn’t look good for these initiatives in other states.”

Although the polls in Minnesota show a close race, the outlook for gay-marriage supporters might be bleaker than it appears, says Bill Hillsman, a political consultant best known for his work on Senator Paul Wellstone’s campaign. “I think there’s a lot of people in the state, especially Democrats, who may say one thing about what they’re going to do on this particular issue, and then do something else.”

To defeat the amendment, it won’t be enough to simply piggyback on Obama and Amy Klobuchar votes, Hillsman says. Gay marriage groups will have to aggressively pull votes from independents and moderate conservatives. Even with a professional football player on their side, Hillsman is pessimistic the amendment’s opponents will be able to sway enough voters, but he thinks Kluwe is making an impact.

“I think what Chris Kluwe has done is opened up a potential audience that otherwise wasn’t even on the radar,” Hillsman says. “That audience, I would submit, is younger, it’s male, and they probably don’t really care that much about this issue.”

In a race that has been viciously politicized, Kluwe has managed to break through the static with both his status as a professional athlete and the colorful language he used in the letter, says Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota.

“You kind of expect your Democrats or Republicans to stand up with a bazooka and blow away your opponent,” Jacobs says. “That’s what kind of made this special. We’ve kind of been shaken awake by Chris Kluwe’s first barrage and how eloquent and powerful he was.”

Thirty minutes outside Minneapolis, in a spacious but modest suburban house, Kluwe takes a seat in his near-empty living room. Now that their oldest daughter is ready to start school, Kluwe and his wife are selling their Minnesota home, moving their permanent residence back to Southern California.

In the meantime, only the essentials remain: a few X-box games, two laptops—one for writing, the other for gaming—and a bookshelf filled with mostly science fiction: Isaac Asimov, Kurt Vonnegut, and Warren Ellis.

“I read super fast,” says Kluwe, who got a perfect score on the verbal portion of the SAT. “Usually a 300-page book will take me about two and a half, three hours to go through. That helped me out a lot in school, because I didn’t go to class, and the night before the test I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to read the textbook.'”

Although Kluwe is now the spokesman for a liberal cause, he doesn’t consider himself a Democrat. He favors neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney and describes the presidential race as a contest to kiss the asses of the most billionaire donors, rather than the battle of ideas it purports to be. If Kluwe had to label himself, he’d say libertarian, but that doesn’t quite sum it up, either.

“My ideal world is one where we don’t need a government, because people treat each other the way they want to be treated,” Kluwe says. “But until we fix human nature, that’s probably not going to happen.”

Kluwe says he doesn’t see the issue of gay marriage as political. His philosophy on the subject goes back to the Golden Rule, and he believes an amendment that would constitutionally criminalize same-sex marriage amounts to institutionalized segregation.

“You see all these arguments against gay marriage, and they all kind of logically boil down to: ‘It makes me feel icky,'” Kluwe says. “That’s not a valid logical argument! Like, tell me that gay people getting married is going to cause someone to steal your garage door opener, or it’s going to cause your dog to poop in your front yard. I can argue against that!”

Kluwe isn’t the only NFL player to enter the public discourse on gay rights. In 1975, three years after retiring from the Green Bay Packers, David Kopay became the first NFL player to publicly come out of the closet. Although he believed he was a prime candidate for a coaching spot, Kopay was turned down by the NFL and instead spent his life after football as a salesman for a floor-covering business. Kopay later said he thought he’d been shunned by the league for his sexual orientation.

Although the NFL wasn’t ready for him, Kopay was an early revolutionary in the fight for equality in professional sports. He went on to become a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation and an ambassador of the Federation of Gay Games. In 1986, he revealed a relationship with a former Washington Redskins player who died—still closeted—of AIDS that year, sending a message to other gay athletes that they weren’t alone.

“That was groundbreaking,” says Jose Guillermo De Los Reyes-Heredia, professor of sexuality studies for the University of Houston, of Kopay’s coming out. “I think he did it because, at that moment, there were a lot of gay and lesbian movements going on in New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.”

Despite Kopay’s bravery, football remained an unwelcome environment for gay people. The next retired player didn’t come out until 1992—17 years later. Being gay was still the greatest taboo in football, and even the whiff of a rumor could be career ending, says Tuaolo.

During his nine years with five NFL teams, Tuaolo had to completely dissociate himself with his sexuality. He regularly witnessed fistfights in the locker room over players calling one another gay, and coaches sometimes joined in the hazing. It was enough to make him contemplate suicide.

“It was part of my life,” he says. “That was my career. Everyone makes sacrifices in their life. For me, I had to sacrifice part of my humanity.”

By the mid 2000s, the topic of homosexuality in major league sports became impossible to ignore. In the span of a single week in 2007, retired NBA player John Amaechi came out as gay, and former Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway came out as homophobic, bluntly saying in a radio interview that he wouldn’t want Amaechi on his team.

“You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known,” Hardaway said. “I don’t like gay people, and I don’t like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the world or in the United States.”

Despite Hardaway’s comments and several death threats, Amaechi later announced that he had “underestimated America,” and had been overwhelmingly welcomed with acceptance. For fans, hearing the controversial debate played out so publicly in a single week was unprecedented, says Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of outsports.com, a gay-friendly sports website.

“Professional sports took a jump in our culture then,” Zeigler says. “They saw both sides in that one week. . . . I think ever since that moment, the progress of gay equality in sports has sped up a lot.”

Today, it’s generally agreed that sports culture is more accepting of homosexuality, and the evidence is in the headlines. Last year, Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts came out, and former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin appeared on the cover of Out magazine, opening up in an interview about his gay brother. Former Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy also came out as gay this year, as did retired Seattle Seahawk Wade Davis, the fourth NFL player to come out after retirement. And teams across the professional sports gamut are releasing “It Gets Better” videos with anti-gay-bullying messages, inspired by alternative weekly sex columnist Dan Savage.

“I think the last year has seen a tipping point for a variety of reasons,” Woog says. “Everybody was sort of waiting for an athlete to come out in one of the major sports, and what happened instead was a lot of activity on the straight-ally front.”

But the major leagues are not yet rid of homophobia. Most recently, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended for etching what translates to “You are a faggot” in the black paint under his eye during a game.

The fact that Escobar was only suspended for three days is evidence that the league isn’t fully committed to eradicating the problem, argues Dave Pallone, a gay former baseball umpire and author of Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball.

“The Toronto Blue Jays should have said: ‘Go home. Take the last two weeks off,'” Pallone says. “What he did was beyond the scope of ridiculous and beyond the scope of hurtful.”

Even with the emergence of allies like Kluwe, the final test has yet to come, Pallone says.

“There’s only one thing that will knock down that wall entirely, and that will be for a male athlete in one of the major sports to come out while he’s still playing.”

One month before the amendment vote, Kluwe is getting ready to wait tables at Manny’s Steakhouse. It’s a Monday night, and Kluwe has agreed to work at a celebrity charity dinner organized by Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway. An hour before the event begins, Kluwe is in a hidden VIP room with black velvet curtains and a flat-screen TV, perusing his Twitter feed on his phone.

“Just checking the jabber,” he says.

In these final weeks before the election, Kluwe will be a blunt instrument in the Vote No campaign. Minnesotans for Equality has transformed the highlights of his now-famous letter into T-shirts that read: “I am a Lustful Cockmonster” and “I am a Unique Sparkle Pony.” Half of the proceeds will go to the campaign, the other half to Kluwe’s charity. The group is also trying to arrange a debate between Kluwe and any willing Republican. So far, no one has volunteered.

No matter what happens this November, Kluwe is confident the country is changing for the better.

“I think the saying is, ‘History tends to move more toward greater equality over time,'” Kluwe says. “Younger generations grow up and learn that, hey, having a gay friend or knowing someone is gay, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not going to kill you.”

In the arena of sports, Kluwe has already witnessed an evolution in the locker room, he says. When he was a rookie in 2005, it was commonplace to throw around words like “faggot” and “gay” as insults. Now that’s no longer acceptable. And when he does hear slurs, Kluwe actively calls out the other player, to set an example for the rookies.

“Hopefully, when they become seven-year or eight-year vets, they can pass that on to the next generation,” Kluwe says. “It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, as long as you can play on the football field.”

When the majority of athletes accustomed to such language retire, Kluwe is confident an NFL player will finally be able to come out while he’s still active. It will be hard, Kluwe concedes, but the player will have plenty of support from people like him.

Asked if sexuality will ever be a nonissue in the NFL, Kluwe nods confidently.

“Yup,” he says, stone-faced. “About 60 years from now, when all the old people are dead.”

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BEST OF NYC™Have a Ball (And Puck and Uppercut): NYC Is Sportstown, U.S.A.

To be a New York sports fan means, by definition, to be forever burdened with the agony of choice. No other city has anything like the New York area’s menu of spectator sports. Two Major League Baseball teams (as well as great minor-league ball in Brooklyn, Staten Island, and nearby New Jersey). Two NFL teams. Two NBA teams (a lot of round ball fans who can’t get Knicks tickets have happily switched their allegiance to the Nets). Three—count ’em, three—NHL teams. A Major League Soccer team. The most prestigious American tennis Grand Slam event and top tennis matches year-round in Flushing Meadows. The most famous amateur boxing tournament in the world in the Golden Gloves, as well as good professional fights in nearly all weight divisions at the Garden, and, soon, at the Barclays Center. Major college football, basketball, and lacrosse. And, if you love horses, Belmont Park near the border of Queens and Hempstead and the Aqueduct near JFK in Queens.

Oh, I almost forgot. The one in Boston is older, but our marathon has more runners and more spectators.

I know I’ve left out a bunch of professional and college sports and a dozen key sporting events—golf, for instance. If that’s what floats your boat, the Barclays Tournament in Bethpage every August draws golfers like Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. But, damn, you’ve got to choose. And this is as much choice as I can handle, and I write about this stuff.

Fall here is a sports fan’s paradise. Labor Day week—when the pennant races heat up, college and pro football kick off, and the U.S. Open is in full tilt—is often called the best seven days in sports. That stands for sports fans all over the country, but it goes double for New York sports fans.

To some, like me, October is even better, with the Yankees usually fighting for the lead in the American League East, and the Giants and Jets taking on their traditional rivals (that would be the Eagles, Cowboys, and Redskins for the Giants, and New England, Buffalo, and Miami for the Jets). There’s usually a good college football game both at Yankee Stadium and across the river at Rutgers, plus the Red Bulls wrapping up their season at their state-of-the-art stadium just a PATH ride away. The NBA and NHL are in preseason, getting ready for their openers at the end of the month, and St. John’s and other colleges are preparing to tip off their basketball season.

As an added bonus: On October 20, we have one of the three or four best professional boxing matches of the year: champion Danny Garcia defending his title against Erik Morales at the Barclays Center, the first professional championship fight in Brooklyn in decades. For nothing else would I miss a game that might put the Yankees in the World Series.

There are, of course, drawbacks to being a sports fan in the New York area. The major one is that you’re going to have to . . . make choices. You’re going to have to give something up.

I know people who have no more connection to the United States Military Academy at West Point than having a father who did a two-year hitch in the Army, but they build their fall around a trip up the Palisades to tailgate at an Army football game amid the most beautiful autumn foliage in the world.

To see a Mets playoff game, I blew off the only chance I had in years to see the Giants at the Meadowlands, and when I lived in Park Slope, I put everything else off to walk five blocks from my apartment and spend the day watching the marathon.

But you always get something back, namely the exhilarating sense of freedom from having so many choices, every one of them a good one. And there’s something you have with every option: You don’t need a car. The extraordinary combination of trains, subways, and buses can get you to any of these events. Yes, you have a lot of sports choices in Southern California as well, but try getting to Dodger Stadium without spending half the day stuck in traffic.

There’s only one limit to your options: your discretionary income. But the New York area has the best Plan B for that problem as well—the best selection of sports bars with the best selection of beers anywhere in the U.S. And, trust me, there’s a sports bar for every sport we have. And many of them have enough flat screens to offer you whatever game you want to see. As Satchel Paige said, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

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DRAUGHT CHOICE

Yes, an NFL game on a Wednesday night—especially the season opener—is unusual, but the game was scheduled around President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. Now, in another first, NBC—which has the broadcast rights to both the game and the DNC—probably won’t cover the convention on Wednesday night because they are doing the game. At least we have our priorities right in this country. This is the era of Eli, but of his outstanding trio of receivers who helped him carry the Giants to Super Bowl glory, only Victor Cruz is sure to show up—Hakeem Nicks is recovering from a broken foot, and Mario Manningham is now a San Francisco 49er. The Cowboys—coming off a mediocre 8-8 season despite a good year for Tony Romo (ranked fourth in the NFL quarterback-rating system)—will be looking for some major revenge after the Giants beat them up last season, knocking them out of the playoffs in a 31-14 trouncing on January 1. Tickets are still available on StubHub, starting at $215 for nosebleed seats. Or, of course, sports bars are a great way to watch the game. SNAP (248 West 14th Street, 646-350-0539) has 16 huge televisions, killer wings, and real food. Go hungry and enjoy the New York strip steak. Duke’s New York (560 Third Avenue, 212-949-5400; 99 East 9th Street, 212-260-2922) has two locations, both with plenty of flat screens and great food, including barbecue and burgers. We love the Bronco Burger with avocado and bacon.

Wed., Sept. 5, 8:30 p.m., 2012

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READY TO RUMBLE

It’s a good thing the NFL preseason is meaningless, as neither the Jets nor the Buffalo Bills won a game in the first three weeks. (We went to press before the final exhibition games were played, but we don’t see much difference in 1-3 and 0-4.) The fun for Jets fans, of course, is a firsthand look at the big Sanchez-versus-Tebow competition the front office has set up and cashed in on big time. (How big is that market? When the Jets signed Tim T. last spring, Nike sued Reebok for supplying without authorization “Tebow-identified New York Jets apparel.”) So if you have the bucks, head out to MetLife Stadium for the season’s first fall football Sunday. Tickets are still available on StubHub, starting around $80 for upper deck, but be sure to bring your binoculars if you want to watch the game.

Sun., Sept. 9, 1 p.m., 2012

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SQUEEZE THE CHEESE

This should be what the old-timers used to call “red meat” football. The Giants will be in desperation mode, while the defending Super Bowl champions the Green Bay Packers will be fielding the best offense in the league, led, of course, by the best passer in the game, Aaron Rodgers. This is a pricey event, with good tickets on StubHub for around $190 each. But if you’re going to one football game this year, this is it. If you can’t get out to MetLife, experience one of the craziest sports bars on the East Coast, Kettle of Fish (59 Christopher Street, 212-414-2278). Steeped in literary historyÑKerouac hung out here when it was on MacDougal Street, and the original red neon vertical “bar” sign still hangsÑit’s also a Packers haven. Their motto is “With the exception of Lambeau Field, the Kettle of Fish is the best place to watch a Packer game.” Try the Usinger brats with beer–an extensive selection available–and watch out for the cheeseheads!

Sun., Dec. 4, 4:15 p.m., 2011

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We Love to Hate Nickelback (and Lulu)

Last week, the NFL put out a defensive-sounding press release that had nothing to do with the conduct of its players or the outcome of a game. Instead, it was about the halftime show at the Thanksgiving Day tilt between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers, and it opened with these words: “Nickelback will take the stage for the 2011 United Way Thanksgiving Halftime Show.”

In most cases, the announcement of a halftime-show performer might be met with smiles, mental notes to set a DVR, or the immediate forgetting of said news. But Nickelback is no ordinary band, despite its steady output of music sounding like a carefully calibrated recipe for “Modern Rock.” The Canadian post-grunge outfit became a lightning rod as soon as they were announced as the game’s entertainment earlier this month, which inspired a lot of grumbling and an online petition against their appearance that garnered more than 50,000 co-signers. (The fact that their name is a football reference did not, apparently, placate the masses.) “Detroit is home to so many great musicians and they chose Nickelback?!?!?!” the plea read. “The Lions ought to think about their fans before choosing such an awful band to play at halftime,” it concluded.

The pop-cultural position held by Nickelback is a particularly curious one. Nickelback is one of the few remaining rock bands that can have the adjective “popular” credibly used to describe it; Dark Horse (Roadrunner), the band’s last album, came out in 2008 and went triple-platinum in a time when few records came close to hitting the seven-figure sales mark. Its 2001 breakthrough single “How You Remind Me” still has enough heat to return on occasion to the Hot Digital Songs chart (which tracks purchases on iTunes and other online-music services) some 10 years after its release.

Yet if you were to conduct a person-on-the-street interview about Nickelback, you’d probably find popular sentiment running about two-to-one against the band, with the occasional “who?” thrown in until you belted out the chorus of “Remind.” “Nickelback” has become shorthand for “shitty corporate rock,” and that usage has become even more stark as the genre has all but receded from the pop charts, and the number of stations given over to it has steadily declined.

What is it about Nickelback that makes people seethe? Is it the band’s utter willingness to color inside the lines presented to them by the Radio-Ready Rock Coloring Book? Is it Chad Kroeger’s voice, which sounds like the vocal of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, only copied at 150 percent on a malfunctioning Xerox? Is it the icky ogling of tracks like “Something In Your Mouth”? It could be any or all of those factors, but then again, there are other bands—Staind, Seether, the list goes on—that commit the same litany of sins but escape the widespread ire of the commenting masses.

Could Nickelback be penalized for being the big gun, for wildly succeeding at their cynical appropriation of rock’s most tired? It probably speaks to the motivations of the Nickelback decriers that the guy who came up with the petition didn’t want to replace the Canadians with Kid Rock, arguably Detroit’s biggest non-Eminem pop star and the artist probably closer in spirit to Nickelback than any of his Motor City–born brethren; instead, he was wishing for a White Stripes reunion. Real rock, indeed.

Which leads to Lulu, the collaboration between downtown icon Lou Reed and thrash pioneers Metallica that landed in record stores earlier this month. The album is conceptually based on the plays of German writer Frank Wedekind; his titular character went from being a bright young thing to dying at the hands of Jack the Ripper. In interviews, both Reed and the members of Metallica sound thrilled to be working with one another. “This is what I call a great thing,” Reed told the New York Times.

Many did not agree, thanks to the pronounced clash between Reed’s nasal intonation of graphic lyrics (taken from Wedekind’s work as well as Reed’s own mind) and the chugging, sometimes rote metal backing it. If any of the petition-signers wanted to hear a record that was antithetical to Nickelback’s parade of verses, choruses, verses, and bluster, Lulu is it: It gleefully dispenses with coherence in favor of chaos, ending with a nine-minute drone that seems designed to serve as a comedown, a pause for the listener to think about what happened during the preceding 80 minutes of grinding and groaning.

More importantly, Lulu seems designed to go against every grain of the current age, when people feel comfortable making snap judgments on full albums after hearing little more than a 30-second snippet. In the weeks leading up to Lulu‘s release, music trickled out bit by bit: first 30 seconds of the growling “The View,” then the full five-minute song, then the whole album. The taste prepared people to dislike what was to come (my first impression involved a heat-warped Pantera cassette and the rantings of a man who felt inspired to unleash his wrath on anyone within earshot), and dislike they did. More than a few “worst album of the year, if not ever” judgments rained down upon Lulu almost immediately after it leaked, even though the time elapsed between its hitting the Internet and those proclamations being made could barely have fit in a spin and a half of the album.

After listening to Lulu repeatedly—quite the undertaking in a world on fast-forward—I softened, somewhat, to the charms lurking underneath its prickly exterior, and found hooks here and there and appreciated the spry basslines of Robert Trujillo. (The occasional bleats by James Hetfield and the “edgy” modifications to Wedekind’s text spewed out by Reed, not so much.) But by the time I’d come to that realization, the chatter had moved on; Lulu had come out to lackluster first-week sales, closing the book on it until, say, five years from now, when some intrepid critic will try to herald it as a lost classic. The speed of the cycle is, on one level, understandable—there’s so much stuff out there that it’s easier to mobilize discourse around disliked cultural products, as opposed to things people have enjoyed, or even sat on a bit and had a generally mixed reaction to. But it’s a shame that it’s difficult to imagine what would happen if, instead of an anti-Nickelback petition, the frustrated Detroit folks had tried to come to a pro-anyone consensus, and if Lulu had been more harmonious, it might not have acquired half the ink it did, despite the pedigrees of its principals.

mjohnston@villagevoice.com