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Backlash over NFL player Harrison Butker's commencement speech has reached a new level

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The NFL is distancing itself from controversial comments by Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker during a recent commencement address. In addition to calling Pride Month a “deadly sin” and bemoaning diversity and equity initiatives, Butker set off waves of criticism when he suggested that women find more fulfillment through getting married and having children than by pursuing careers – directly after quoting a song by Taylor Swift.

The backlash has been building since Butker made the comments Saturday in an address to graduates at Benedictine College, a small Catholic school in Atchison, Kansas.

The NFL issued a statement Wednesday, saying Butker’s comments don’t reflect the views of the league.

"Harrison Butker gave a speech in his personal capacity. His views are not those of the NFL as an organization,” said Senior Vice President Jonathan Beane, the league’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. “The NFL is steadfast in our commitment to inclusion, which only makes our league stronger.”

GLAAD also issued a statement calling Butker’s speech “a clear miss” and “woefully out of step with Americans about Pride, LGBTQ people and women.”

The Chiefs, defending Super Bowl champions and one of the NFL’s marquee teams, have not responded to requests for comment.

However, plenty of women (and Taylor Swift fans) have made their feelings plainly known, including the sisters of Mount St. Scholastica monastery, a founding institution and sponsor of Benedictine College.

“The sisters of Mount St. Scholastica do not believe that Harrison Butker’s comments in his 2024 Benedictine College commencement address represent the Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts college that our founders envisioned and in which we have been so invested,” they said in a statement. “Instead of promoting unity in our church, our nation, and the world, his comments seem to have fostered division.”

Such pushback could keep Butker’s social media feeds clogged with criticism for the foreseeable future. It also could be an optical problem for the NFL and the Chiefs, who have both enjoyed increased support from female fans in the past year.

What Butker said about women — and Taylor Swift

In front of the crowd of about 485 male and female graduates, Butker suggested that a woman’s accomplishments in the home are more valuable than any academic or professional goals.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Butker also praised his wife Isabelle, saying she “would be the first to say her life truly started when she began living her vocation as a wife and as a mother.”

Judging from the hundreds upon hundreds of critical comments on Butker’s Instagram posts and about him on X and TikTok, his remarks did not sit well with many people.

“This wasn’t a case of foot-in-mouth. It was a well-prepared speech,” wrote columnist Sam McDowell in the Kansas City Star. “Women listening in the audience, rather than being rewarded with a diploma on graduation day, were made to listen as he promoted the role of homemaker — not as an acceptable choice, but as their duty as a husband’s servant.”

It also didn’t sit well with many people that Butker invoked Swift, the pop star who is dating Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce and who was a frequent sight at Chiefs games this past season, including the Super Bowl.

Butker likely became the first person in history to quote a Taylor Swift song while criticizing Catholic priests for catering too much to the feelings of their parishioners. “As my teammate’s girlfriend says: ‘Familiarity breeds contempt,’” Butker said at one point, quoting Swift’s song “Bejeweled” (and, by extension, a common turn of phrase).

Conservative voices have praised Butker’s speech for being “100% correct” and for reflecting his self-professed deep Catholic faith. However, his reference to Swift — a childless, unmarried superstar and feminist figure who by Butker’s own definition is not living up to her potential — has prompted additional outcry.

Feminists and Taylor Swift fans have fired back

Butker, 28, has been with the Chiefs for seven seasons. He kicked four field goals as the Chiefs edged the San Francisco 49ers, 25-22, in February to win the Super Bowl.

Before his speech, Butker’s Instagram account was rather innocuous: Mostly photos of his gameday outfits paired with Bible quotes, posed shots next to conservative figures and bits of Christian wisdom, all met with generally hospitable commentary from fans.

Now, nearly every recent post on his account has been overrun with insults, some questioning how Butker feels about women like Swift, who have found success outside of marriage and motherhood:

“I feel bad for those poor women who looked forward to their graduation and had you inflicted upon them.”

“Have a talk with Travis about how you can be successful, masculine AND still incredibly supportive of your girlfriend’s career.”

The deluge of criticism reached almost every corner of social media, and people took notice.

“As a woman, does watching Harrison Butker get cooked online count as being in the kitchen,” reads one popular post on X.

“I’ll let the Swifties handle Harrison Butker,” reads another.

Commenters and social influencers also picked up on another piece of information that appears at odds with Butker’s worldview. His mother, Elizabeth Keller Butker, is a medical physicist at Emory University’s Winship Cancer Institute in Atlanta and holds, among other academic accolades, a degree in chemistry from Smith College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts.

“What does your mom think about your little speech, Harrison?” asked Vicki Chan, a doctor and TikTok creator with more than 500,000 followers.

CNN has reached out to Benedictine College, where Butker gave his address, and is awaiting a response.

The backlash comes as the NFL is trying to court female fans

While the fallout from Butker’s address is messy enough already, there’s another complicating detail to consider.

The NFL has tried to woo female fans for years. When Swift began appearing at Chiefs games last fall to support her boyfriend Kelce, female interest in the NFL skyrocketed. Super Bowl LVIII, in which the Chiefs beat the San Francisco 49ers and the superstar couple shared picture-perfect embraces after the victory, was the most-watched Super Bowl ever. Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged the “Taylor Swift effect” on the season.

To many, Butker’s comments are a kick in the face to a burgeoning, and valuable, demographic of NFL fans.

“Hey NFL. If you want to continue to grow your female fan base and any other marginalized group (straight white men are already watching your product), come get your boy,” tweeted former “Monday Night Football” reporter Lisa Guerrero.

Some commenters also asked the Chiefs to issue a response to Butker’s remarks in the interest of their female fans. So far, the Chiefs have not made a public comment.

Butker’s speech contained other polarizing comments

While Butker’s remarks about women and Taylor Swift inspired a very specific sort of backlash, critics had plenty to say about the other parts of his speech, too. A few details in particular have stirred up discontent:

• Butker criticized President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, and other unnamed Catholic leaders for “pushing dangerous gender ideologies onto the youth of America” — an apparent reference to transgender rights.

• In a swipe at LGBTQ communities, Butker encouraged graduates to have Catholic pride, but “not the deadly sin sort of pride that has an entire month dedicated to it.”

• Butker also waded into the DEI debate, saying, “The world around us says that we should keep our beliefs to ourselves whenever they go against the tyranny of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

In response to his comments about diversity, Tennessean reporter Andrea Williams pointed out Butker shares the field with Patrick Mahomes, who is considered one of the best players of his generation and is one of only a handful of Black quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl.

“Harrison Butker doesn’t have three Super Bowl rings without Patrick Mahomes,” she wrote. “And without those Super Bowl rings, he doesn’t have the aforementioned praise or platform.”

Some women also pointed out that Butker’s understanding of Catholicism — and what the faith asks of its adherents — is far from universal.

Journalist Yvette Walker wrote a faith-based critique for the Kansas City Star, noting the many women of the Bible who contributed to their communities outside of traditional gender roles.

“I hope the women in the audience who didn’t agree with everything Butker said remember that they can think for themselves, read the Bible for themselves, and choose the reasoning God granted to live a full and worthwhile life whether you have a family or not,” she wrote.

CNN’s Kevin Dotson contributed to this story.

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