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Thoughts on Harrison Butker

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker has managed, just for this week, to attract more attention than his more glamorous teammates Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. He did so by giving a commencement address at Benedictine College, a small, traditional Catholic college in Kansas. Butker’s speech expressed his sincere, traditional Catholic beliefs about faith, family, and the roles of men and women, including his view of the value of stay-at-home moms.

His message involved a certain amount of preaching to the choir of the Benedictine student body and their families and was expressed in ways that even some traditionalists found off-putting and counterproductive. Nobody disputes that these are his deeply held opinions.

Public speeches are always fair game for critique, but the avalanche of criticism and abuse heaped in Butker’s direction just underlines the intolerance of actual diversity of thought and inclusion of sincere belief on the part of his many left-leaning critics — as well as the extent to which his critics on the right feel the need to chastise him precisely because there are so few public spokespeople for traditional ideas that conservatives worry that every one of them has to be perfect.

The worst response came from the NFL, which insisted on distancing the league from Butker’s opinions. Notably, unlike Colin Kaepernick, Butker did not use the NFL’s property or airtime to spread his opinions; he did so in his free time. There’s already a long and inconsistent record of the NFL and other sports leagues attempting, and failing, to come up with a consistent approach to punishing non-game-related things done by athletes off the field. The league wasn’t nearly this quick in the past to denounce violent crimes committed by its players. Nobody actually believes that it has been, or will in the future be, vigilant about making statements every time a player says or does something politically or socially controversial from the left. The point of this is to send a message that people who believe what Butker believes are apt to face discipline in the workplace for their faith and opinions. (That’s not just private action, either, given that the NFL is an association of franchises, one of which is publicly owned by the government of Green Bay, Wis.) And it is, to boot, a misreading of the NFL’s fan base: Do we really think that pro football fans are overwhelmingly left-leaning on cultural matters? Even the NFL’s players are, on average, much more religious and socially conservative than those in the NBA. A little more tolerance from the league would go a long way.

So, maybe some of the ways in which Butker expressed his views were a little tone-deaf. He is, first of all, a 28-year-old professional athlete, not someone who makes a living as a public speaker or writer. Moreover, being deaf to the crowd is Butker’s job. He’s a kicker. There are lots of people who can kick a football through NFL uprights, and a fair number of those are big and athletic enough to survive the occasional collisions with NFL players from other positions. What makes a pro kicker is two things beyond simple leg strength. One is relentless practice — practice of a solitary nature, which takes a particular type of single-minded and at least mildly antisocial personality. (In this, kickers are like golfers, and Friday’s incident involving top-ranked golfer Scottie Scheffler reminds us that golfers are also often not great at reading other people and situations because they’ve devoted themselves from an early age to a repetitive and solitary discipline.)

The second thing that makes a good kicker is the capacity to shut out the crowd. Harrison Butker’s job revolves around the ability to stand alone in the middle of 80,000 people shrieking at him and still manage to muster the internal calm and tunnel vision to think about nothing but repeating the same old kick against the same old ball. Butker isn’t a great kicker, but he’s a very good one. He led the NFL in field goals in 2019. He’s hit 89.1 percent of his field-goal attempts over a seven-year career — the second-highest figure in NFL history — and made 19 out of 20 field goals across the Chiefs’ three Super Bowl runs, including 11 for 11 this past season — a season in which he converted 46 extra points without a miss across the regular season and postseason. He got that way by learning not to listen to the people who yell at him.

So, let Harrison Butker be himself. His opinions are outgrowths of virtues in short supply today: faith, fidelity to the traditional family, and respect for the different, complementary, and mutually supporting roles played by husbands and wives. These are mostly opinions that were not even controversial until a few decades ago, and it should alarm us to see so little tolerance for their mere expression in the public square. So, maybe Butker’s expression of those ideas isn’t perfect, and maybe the ideas reflect the series of bubbles he lives in as a traditional Catholic, a celebrated pro athlete, and a kicker. If his voice was one of many, we wouldn’t make so many demands of him to get every word exactly right. But he’s willing to stand alone amidst the multitude and focus on the upright.

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