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The NFL responds after a player urges female college graduates to become homemakers

Kansas City Chiefs player Harrison Butker, pictured at a press conference in February, is in hot water for his recent commencement speech at Benedictine College in Kansas.
Chris Unger
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Kansas City Chiefs player Harrison Butker, pictured at a press conference in February, is in hot water for his recent commencement speech at Benedictine College in Kansas.

Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker stirred controversy off the field this weekend when he told a college graduating class that one of the "most important titles" a woman can hold is "homemaker."

Butker denounced abortion rights, Pride Month, COVID-19 lockdowns and "the tyranny of diversity, equity and inclusion" in his commencement address at Benedictine College, a Catholic liberal arts school in Atchison, Kan.

The 28-year-old, a devout Catholic and father of two, also railed against "dangerous gender ideologies" and urged men to "fight against the cultural emasculation of men." At one point, he addressed women specifically.

"I want to speak directly to you briefly because I think it is you, the women, who have had the most diabolical lies told to you, how many of you are sitting here now about to cross the stage, and are thinking about all the promotions and titles you're going to get in your career," he said. "Some of you may go on to lead successful careers in the world. But I would venture to guess that the majority of you are most excited about your marriage and the children you will bring into this world."

"I can tell you that my beautiful wife Isabelle would be the first to say that her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother," Butker said.

The 20-minute speech has been viewed more than 455,000 times on YouTube since Saturday and generated considerable backlash — and memes — on social media, especially from people critical of his views on women. Many pointed out that Butker's own mom is a clinical medical physicist.

Butker also drew ire from fans of Taylor Swift, who is dating fellow Chiefs player Travis Kelce, a relationship that has famously helped bring many new female fans to the NFL. Later in the speech, he quoted Swift — though not by name — while talking about what he sees as the problem of priests becoming "overly familiar" with their parishioners.

"This undue familiarity will prove to be problematic every time, because as my teammate's girlfriend says, 'Familiarity breeds contempt,' " he said, quoting a lyric from her song Bejeweled.

One Swift fan account joked about petitioning for the pop star to replace Butker as the Chiefs' kicker. A real online petition, calling for the Chiefs to dismiss Butker for his "sexist, homophobic, anti-trans, anti-abortion and racist remarks," has gained 95,000 signatures and counting since Monday.

Butker and the team have not commented publicly on his speech and the backlash to it, though late Wednesday the NFL issued a statement distancing itself from it.

"Harrison Butker gave a speech in his personal capacity," Jonathan Beane, the NFL's senior VP and chief diversity and inclusion officer told NPR on Thursday. "His views are not those of the NFL as an organization."

What else did Butker say?

Butker has been vocal about his faith, telling the Eternal Word Television Network in 2019 that he grew up Catholic but practiced less in high school and college before rediscovering his belief later in life.

Last year, Butker appeared in an ad for the nonprofit Catholic Vote urging Kansans to support a referendum that would limit abortion rights in the state (it was ultimately unsuccessful). He's also one of several athletes who has partnered with a Catholic prayer app. And days after the Chiefs won this year's Super Bowl, Butker spent a week "in reflection" at a monastery in California.

He also gave the commencement address at his alma mater Georgia Tech last year, in which he urged students to "get married and start a family."

This time around, Butker started his speech by suggesting he had been reluctant to give it: He said he originally turned down the president's invitation because he felt that one commencement speech was enough, "especially for someone who isn't a professional speaker."

He was persuaded, he said, in part by leadership's argument about how many milestones graduating seniors had missed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As a group, you witnessed firsthand how bad leaders who don't stay in their lane can have a negative impact on society," he said in his opening remarks. "It is through this lens that I want to take stock of how we got to where we are and where we want to go as citizens, and yes, as Catholics."

He criticized President Biden for his handling of the pandemic and his stance on abortion, which he said falsely suggests people can simultaneously be "both Catholic and pro-choice."

Butker blamed "the pervasiveness of disorder" for the availability of procedures like abortion, IVF, surrogacy and euthanasia, as well as "a growing support for degenerate cultural values and media."

At one point, he referenced an Associated Press article from earlier this month about the revival of conservative Catholicism that prominently featured Benedictine College as an example.

The school of roughly 2,000 gets top ratings from the Cardinal Newman Society, a nonprofit that promotes Catholic education in the U.S., for policies including offering daily mass and prohibiting campus speakers who "publicly oppose Catholic moral teaching."

"I am certain the reporters at the AP could not have imagined that their attempt to rebuke and embarrass places and people like those here at Benedictine wouldn't be met with anger, but instead with excitement and pride," Butker said, before making an apparent reference to LGBTQ Pride Month in June.

"Not the deadly sin sort of pride that has an entire month dedicated to it," he said, as laughter could be heard from the crowd.

How are people responding?

The official YouTube video of Butker's speech shows the crowd standing and applauding at the end, though the AP reports that reactions among graduates were mixed. Several told the outlet they were surprised by his comments about women, priests and LGTBQ people.

Kassidy Neuner told the AP that the speech felt "degrading," suggesting that only women can be homemakers.

"To point this out specifically that that's what we're looking forward to in life seems like our four years of hard work wasn't really important," said Neuner, who is planning on attending law school.

Butker's comments have gotten some support, including on social media from football fan accounts and Christian and conservative media personalities.

"Christian men should be preaching this regularly," tweeted former NFL player T.J. Moe. "Instead, it's so taboo that when someone tells the obvious truth that anyone who holds a biblical worldview believes, it's national news."

Still, other public figures — including musicians Maren Morris and Flava Flav — were quick to disagree.

Even the official Kansas City account weighed in, tweeting on Wednesday that Butker resides not there but in a neighboring suburb, Lee's Summit. The tweet has since been deleted and the account apologized for the tweet.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas tweetedthat he believed Butker holds a "minority viewpoint" in the state but defended his right to express it.

"Grown folks have opinions, even if they play sports," he wrote. "I disagree with many, but I recognize our right to different views."

Justice Horn, the former chair of Kansas City's LGBTQ Commission, was more critical, writing on X (formerly Twitter) that "Harrison Butker doesn't represent Kansas City nor has he ever." He called the city one that "welcomes, affirms and embraces our LGBTQ+ community members."

The Los Angeles Chargers also trolled Butker in its Sims-style schedule release video on Wednesday, which ends with a shot of his animated, number 7 jersey-wearing character cooking and arranging flowers in a kitchen.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.