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Kickoff Controversy: Harrison Butker’s Graduation Speech Sparks Debate

By Emma Djukic, June 18 2024—

When Kansas City Chiefs placekicker Harrison Butker took the stage at Benedictine College, few anticipated the ensuing uproar. On May 11, 2024, Butker addressed the graduates of this private, Catholic liberal arts college in Atchison, Kansas. While I’m sure the students anticipated a memorable convocation, I doubt they knew just how unforgettable the occasion would become. 

To say that the commencement speech given by Harrison Butker at Benedictine College led to some controversies would be an understatement. Within hours of the video going up on YouTube, a petition was started to have him fired from his position as the placekicker on the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. It has garnered nearly 230,000 signatures. News coverage, morning talk shows, countless clips on Instagram and TikTok—what could Butker possibly have said to provoke such an extreme reaction?

During his twenty-minute address, Butker expressed various beliefs and opinions about the Catholic faith, addressing the women in the audience directly toward the end of his talk.

“For the ladies present today, congratulations on an amazing accomplishment. You should be proud of all that you have achieved to this point in your young lives. 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 this stage and are thinking about all the promotions and titles you are going to get in your career? 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,” said Butker during his speech.

He went on to talk about his wife, who chose to be a mother and homemaker instead of pursuing a career, sharing her positive experience. While he made some remarks in passing about Pride Month and birth control, this article will focus on the discussion surrounding women and the dynamics between staying home and pursuing a career.

Professor Kirsten Kramar is both a mother and legal scholar who has read much feminist literature throughout her long and successful career. She teaches Law and Society, among other courses, at the University of Calgary, and spoke with me about the address and its implications for women.

“This is not a new topic,” she said. “The first-wave feminists began by demanding a family wage. This is when the men get paid more to recognize the unpaid labour done by the women at home.”

From there, the aims of the movement changed and grew to include different directives such as legal, social, and economic equality between men and women. But even today, the question of equality often comes down to economic capacity. Many families simply are not able to make the sacrifice to have a parent stay at home as they need two incomes to make ends meet. They see it as a luxury, one that many families are not able to afford.

“This can be attributed to the successive governments in recent years, who have all failed to address the issue of the rising cost of living,” Kramar discussed.

But the response goes beyond frustration at a well-off individual suggesting you make a life choice you can’t afford. As Kramar put it, the “outrage machine” has found a new topic to fixate upon.

The degree of outrage in response to Butker’s speech is unreasonable. More than that, Kramar noted how he is been treated as a “non-rights-bearing citizen” by the court of public opinion. A man spoke about his beliefs to a group of people who align with those values, after being invited to do so. He expressed his thoughts in a free country without breaking any laws regarding hate speech. Suddenly, the public demanded he be stripped of his employment and his reputation torn to shreds because his views did not align with theirs. Because, as much as the instigatory language and wording of the people who find him objectionable would have you believe, he did not say anything that would be considered punishable by law. Offensive, if you choose to be offended, but not illegal. I strongly encourage anyone interested to watch the full video, or read the transcript of his speech rather than take the face-value edits made on TikTok.

Where does the outrage stem from? Opportunities for women in recent decades in Western liberal democracies to get an education and pursue a career have never been more accessible. Moreover, women have been succeeding at this end. In 2021, 60 per cent of bachelor’s degree graduates were women compared to 40 per cent of men. In 2022, women held a higher percentage of white-collar jobs than men, including occupations in education, law, social community, government services, business, finance, administration, and health. For some of these professions, there is an 80 per cent to 20 per cent split in favour of women. So why is there still such a fragile perception regarding women choosing to stay home rather than work? Kramar noted that there is nothing wrong with giving this message to young women, but it should be given to men as well. Butker addressed the young men in the audience.

“Part of what plagues our society is this lie that men are not necessary in the home or in our communities… Be unapologetic in your masculinity, fighting against the cultural emasculation of men. Do hard things. Never settle for what is easy.” 

At this point, it’s not about whether you agree with him. Frankly, in recent years, it has never been about whether an individual under fire is right in their statement. It is about protecting the essential freedoms of speech and religion. The degree to which this witch hunt has evolved is eerily reminiscent of George Orwell’s thought police. Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who wrote the biography of the French philosopher Voltaire, famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This quote, often cited in reference to free speech, underscores the importance of upholding these ideals. Yet, we see less and less of this sentiment today.

During his first public appearance since the commencement address, Butker openly stated that he did not regret expressing his beliefs, in reference to Benedictine College. The NFL will not be firing Butker, and his coach, and fellow teammates such as Patrick Mahomes have spoken their thoughts on Butker’s speech.

“When you’re in the locker room, there’s a lot of different people from a lot of different areas of life and they have a lot of different views on everything and we’re not always going to agree… He might not have the same values as I have, but at the same time, I am going to judge him by the character that he shows every single day. And that’s a great person.”

The Kansas City Chiefs Coach, Andy Reid, spoke similarly, saying that “everybody’s got their own opinion. That’s what’s so great about this country, you can share those things and you can work through it… we respect everyone to have a voice.”  A reporter asked Reid how he deals with the comments that Butker made, speaking ill to women.

“I don’t think he was speaking ill to women, but he has his opinions and we all respect that. I let you guys in this room and you have a lot of opinions that I don’t like,” said Reid. ” And doesn’t that sum it up nicely? 

As much as there has been outrage, there has also been vocal backing for Butker as well. Mothers have taken to social media to show their support and post images of how they are not oppressed for choosing to stay home. Similarly, Butker’s women’s jerseys have sold out online following his speech.

“Thankfully, we don’t live in a society where mob rule can dole out justice. Then it becomes vigilantism, not justice,” Professor Kramar summarized. 

Women are strong and capable. There is nothing they cannot achieve once they put their minds to it. Whether developing new medicines, making their kids a healthy lunch every day, training AI models, or taking care of their homes, the fundamental idea is that every woman should have the choice to dictate her own life. Butker’s speech will not prevent a single dedicated woman from pursuing her goals. However, it may shed light on those women who want to pursue a life of motherhood and homemaking in a society that does not value those roles in the same way.

This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.

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