The controversy over Harrison Butker’s commencement speech, explained

Butker’s address was a textbook case of conservative sexism and homophobia.

The controversy over Harrison Butker’s commencement speech, explained0

Harrison Butker of the Kansas City Chiefs arrives before Super Bowl LVIII at Allegiant Stadium on February 11, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

NFL kicker Harrison Butker is facing widespread backlash after giving a college commencement speech that casually dabbled in misogyny and homophobia.

Butker, who has won three Super Bowls with the Kansas City Chiefs in recent years, delivered the address at Benedictine College, a private Catholic institution in Kansas, on May 11. In it, he criticizes everything from women prioritizing professional careers to Pride Month to abortion access.

An outspoken conservative who is close with leading right-wing figures including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), Butker’s speech closely echoed Republican rhetoric and fixated on issues that have been popular fodder for conservatives as they try to mobilize their voters ahead of the 2024 election.

“I think it is you, the women who have had the most diabolical lies told to you,” Butker said in his speech. “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.”

The Chiefs have not commented on Butker’s remarks and the NFL league office distanced itself from them. “His views are not those of the NFL as an organization. The NFL is steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger,” Jonathan Beane, the NFL’s senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer, told People.

Butker’s speech advances the same agenda that the GOP has been pushing not only in its rhetoric but through policy. At least 21 Republican-led state legislatures have approved laws that ban or restrict abortion access and at least 20 have approved bills that curb access to gender-affirming care for minors. Butker’s remarks — which emphasized people “staying in [their] lane” — are the latest attempt to weaponize religion to achieve the same goals.

The backlash to Butker’s speech, explained

Butker joined the NFL in 2017, and is considered by some analysts to be one of the best kickers in the league. In recent years, he’s also been vocal about his support for conservative causes.

On his Instagram page, Butker is pictured alongside Sen. Hawley, a darling of the religious right. He was previously photographed with Mark and Patricia McCloskey, a white couple that pointed guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in 2020. And during the Chiefs’ visit to the White House in 2023, he wore a tie expressing his opposition to abortion rights.

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A post shared by Harrison Butker (@buttkicker7)

The Chiefs have been in the cultural spotlight not only for their on-field success but also thanks to tight end Travis Kelce’s relationship with pop star Taylor Swift. Butker referenced a Swift song lyric in his 20-minute speech and described Swift, a music mogul who is one of the most famous people on the planet as “my teammate’s girlfriend.” (For the curious, Butker cited the Swift lyric, “familiarity breeds contempt” in order to criticize priests who rely too much on parishioners for adulation and support.)

In the rest of his remarks, Butker covered many of conservatives’ favorite culture war issues: from the idea that people get “silenced” for expressing unpopular opinions to the belief that diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives are oppressive.

Below are some of the lowlights:

  • On women’s careers: One of the sections getting the most attention is Butker’s comments about the importance of women’s roles in the home. Singling out the women in the audience, he argued that they’re likely more eager to become wives and mothers than to have successful careers.

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

In addition to speaking on women’s behalf, Butker also reduced the primary goal of their lives to one biological function. Being a homemaker is an important role that should be celebrated, but it’s far from the only one a woman can choose — a key reason his remarks spurred such backlash. Butker also described women’s roles very differently than he described men’s: While he touted the virtues of being a present father, he did not say that being a dad was likely the primary goal of a man’s life.

  • On LGBTQ rights: Butker also criticized “dangerous gender ideologies” that politicians are pushing onto the “youth of America,” an oblique critique of trans rights. He lambasted LGBTQ rights more broadly, too, describing them as “the deadly sin sort of pride that has an entire month dedicated to it.”

Such comments are dangerous at a time when LGBTQ people are more likely to be victims of violence, which some experts attribute to the right’s dehumanizing rhetoric.

  • On abortion rights: Butker also decried abortion access, birth control, and IVF as violations of Catholic teachings and practices that members of the Church should abstain from.

“Things like abortion, IVF, surrogacy, euthanasia, as well as a growing support for the degenerate cultural values and media all stem from the pervasiveness of disorder,” he said. He criticized President Biden directly for claiming to be both a Catholic and a supporter of abortion rights.

“Our own nation is led by a man who publicly and proudly proclaims his Catholic faith, but at the same time is delusional enough to make the sign of the cross during a pro-abortion rally,” Butker said. “He has been so vocal in his support for the murder of innocent babies that I’m sure to many people it appears that you can be both Catholic and pro-choice.”

Butker’s statement explicitly argues that there’s a correct way to be Catholic, even though in reality, most Catholics are supportive of abortion and LGBTQ rights.

“Harrison Butker got a lot wrong in his commencement speech, but one thing he did get right is that Joe Biden and pro-choice Catholics are not alone — 63% of Catholics support legal abortion,” Catholics for Choice, a Catholic group that backs abortion rights, said in a statement on X. Fifty-seven percent of Catholics in the US also favor same-sex marriage, according to a Pew poll.

Since the speech, more than 100,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Chiefs to release Butker. “These dehumanizing remarks against LGBTQ+ individuals, attacks on abortion rights and racial discrimination perpetuate division and undermine human rights,” the petition reads.

Taylor Swift fans dubbed him “the smallest man who ever lived,” and a recent video by the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers featured a Sims avatar of Butker working in the kitchen.

Although a video of the speech at Benedictine College showed many audience members giving Butker a standing ovation, an AP report found that reviews among students were mixed. “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,” student Kassidy Neuner said regarding Butker’s statements about women anticipating being a wife and a mother.

Butker’s speech is part of broader conservative pushback to LGBTQ and women’s rights

Butker’s remarks drew from the playbook used by the religious right to rail against recent advances in LGBTQ rights while promoting traditional roles for men and women.

Conservative US Evangelicals and Catholics have been at the center of global efforts to spread anti-LGBTQ ideas, the Guardian reported. In some of its most extreme forms, white supremacists and Christian nationalists like Nick Fuentes have even argued against women’s ability to work and vote.

Such statements are driven by concerns about the growing political power of these groups, a worry that also previously fueled bizarre GOP conspiracy theories about Swift and her presence at Chiefs’ football games earlier this year.

Butker’s speech and forceful embrace of these ideas have also underscored which professional football players are allowed to be political without repercussions and which are not. Colin Kaepernick, for example, settled with the NFL in 2019, after accusing teams of blackballing him for kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police violence against Black Americans.

The Chiefs kicker’s outspoken conservative views, meanwhile, have drawn public criticism — but no consequences from his employers.


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