On the Sochi Olympics, Gay Rights and Expectations for NHL Players

When candidates for the U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team convene in Arlington, Va., later this month for USA Hockey’s Olympic Orientation Camp, they can undoubtedly be expected to answer this question: “What are your thoughts on Russia’s anti-gay laws?” How each player answers, or doesn’t answer that or similar questions will be publicized, scrutinized, analyzed and probably criticized no matter what he says or doesn’t say.

SochiIf you’re unfamiliar, the Russian government passed a bill in June that is both vague and draconian. The bill specifically states that any “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” is banned. Essentially, anyone speaking or engaging in public displays of support for the LGBT community is subject to fines and jail time. This goes for Russian citizens and foreign visitors.

Specifically, via policymic.com, the law reads as follows:

Propaganda is the act of distributing information among minors that 1) is aimed at the creating nontraditional sexual attitudes, 2) makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive, 3) equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations, or 4) creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.

The vagueness of how one is actually distributing this “propaganda” is  why there is mounting concern for how athletes, gay or straight, will be expected to conduct themselves while competing in Sochi. Russian officials have already confirmed anyone found in violation of the law could serve jail time and be expelled from the country, athlete or otherwise.

More after the jump.

Here’s a look at the potential penalties for those found in violation of the law, again via policymic.com:

If you’re Russian. Individuals engaging in such propaganda can be fined 4,000 to 5,000 rubles (120-150 USD), public officials are subject to fines of 40,000 to 50,000 rubles (1,200-1,500 USD), and registered organizations can be either fined (800,000-1,000,000 rubles or 24,000-30,000 USD) or sanctioned to stop operations for 90 days. If you engage in the said propaganda in the media or on the internet, the sliding scale of fines shifts: for individuals, 50,000 to 100,000 rubles; for public officials, 100,000 to 200,000 rubles, and for organizations, from one million rubles or a 90-day suspension.

If you’re an alien. Foreign citizens or stateless persons engaging in propaganda are subject to a fine of 4,000 to 5,000 rubles, or they can be deported from the Russian Federation and/or serve 15 days in jail. If a foreigner uses the media or the internet to engage in propaganda, the fines increase to 50,000-100,000 rubles or a 15-day detention with subsequent deportation from Russia.

That last part is where it gets really sketchy. Presumably, athletes will be interviewed and will be asked the question: “What are your thoughts on Russia’s anti-gay laws?” or even more crassly, “How do you feel about gay people?” Each time those kinds of questions are posed, an athlete is put in a position to break Russian law, tempting fate and the possibility of a massive fine, 15 days in jail and deportation.

This law has been subject to outrage across the world, but disappointingly none has come from the International Olympic Committee, whose first priority should be to protect its athletes.

Boycotts have been called for, while many seem to agree that a boycott would be insufficient in making much of a difference. That includes You Can Play co-founder Patrick Burke, who wrote an excellent op-ed for BuzzFeed detailing why athletes should show up and compete:

First and foremost, let’s be clear about one thing: The simplest argument against a boycott is that it will not work. Those clinging to the notion that Russia could ever be shamed into changing their ways should recognize who, exactly, they are dealing with. Many who are supporting the idea seem to presume that a boycott would lead to some sort of change; there is absolutely no reason to believe that to be true. I admit, I have no doubt the LGBT community in Russia would be touched and inspired by the gesture. That, I imagine, would fade when no laws were changed, no prisoners were freed, no violence halted.

I also don’t believe, however, that Russia would ever take the step of jailing an Olympic athlete from a foreign nation and risking real retribution on an international scale. I firmly believe all LGBT or “pro-gay” Olympic athletes and staff (a group that, I might add, includes many close friends and my father) will be free to participate at Sochi without fear of punishment. If that is not the case, they might as well save the expense of building a hockey rink, because I could safely describe the vast majority of the competing NHL players as “pro-gay.” While the atmosphere may be, at best, begrudging tolerance, it would be a tremendous act of international aggression to arrest or harass an Olympic athlete for his or her orientation or beliefs.

To that second point, Russian officials maintain that authorities will be unafraid to arrest those that break this law, as reported by RiaNovosti.

Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko to insist no one is exempt from the law.

“The law enforcement agencies can have no qualms with people who harbor a nontraditional sexual orientation and do not commit such acts [to promote homosexuality to minors], do not conduct any kind of provocation and take part in the Olympics peacefully,” said an Interior Ministry statement issued on Monday.

The head of Russia’s National Olympic Committee Alexander Zhukov stated it plainly.

“If a person does not put across his views in the presence of children, no measures against him can be taken,” Zhukov said. “People of nontraditional sexual orientations can take part in the competitions and all other events at the Games unhindered, without any fear for their safety whatsoever.”

So keep your mouth shut and you’re good, Olympic athletes. Not good.

No one is boycotting, but who among the athletes in attendance, gay or straight, will be able to keep their mouths shut on this topic, particularly through the media?

U.S. middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds put the law to the test this week at the Track & Field World Championships in Moscow.

“As much as I can speak out about it, I believe that all humans deserve equality however God made them,” Symmonds told the Russian news agency R-Sport after the race at Luzhniki stadium.

“Whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, we all deserve the same rights. If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it I will, shy of getting arrested.

“I respect Russians’ ability to govern their people. I disagree with their laws.”

Symmonds hasn’t been arrested.

So far that’s one test case of a high-profile athlete in a high-profile event, but NHL players will not be spared from the somewhat awkward position they’ll be put in when asked questions both at Olympic orientation camps in the coming weeks and while at the Olympics in Sochi.

One of the big issues the players will have to overcome is the expectations of the public. With many players active in the You Can Play Project and becoming more outspoken on the topic of acceptance of others, the bar has been raised.

In U.S. camp, Brooks Orpik, James van Riemsdyk, Dustin Brown, Dustin Byfuglien and Ryan Kesler are among players that have shot You Can Play PSAs. Many candidates for other countries’ Olympic teams have as well.

With such a public statement in support of LGBT athletes, players have been construed as quasi-activists, using their celebrity to combat intolerance, but filming PSAs is one thing. Taking on Russian law on the world’s biggest winter sports stage is on another planet.

Additionally, Team USA’s senior advisor, Brian Burke, is a board member of You Can Play and has been outspoken on gay rights issues from the time his late son Brendan came out in 2010. Burke is not one known for keeping mum when he has an opinion, leading son Patrick to point out the following:

Good luck getting him to go quietly.

However, when it comes to players, there is likely to be extra trepidation.

Recently, candidates for the Swedish Olympic team were asked by Aftonbladet their thoughts on this law and each player gave his own answer or non-answer. Henrik Lundqvist, who has taken part in You Can Play PSAs and has spoken out in support of the LGBT community, chose to keep his opinion to the law to himself (translation via Reddit user)

“I don’t have a problem with public statements but when it comes to Olympics, we should be careful with political statements. I have opinions, of course. But Olympics is such a great event and we should focus on the sport.”

There was some outcry on social media that Lundqvist was being cowardly in his remarks by essentially not addressing an issue that he has freely in the past and it’s understandable and even justifiable. However, is it truly fair to expect these players to be activists? Is it something any of them are even qualified for?

When these players signed on with the You Can Play Project, their message was relatively simple. They all agreed and wanted the world to know that they would be accepting of any teammate regardless of sexual orientation. The message was tied around sports and was completely apolitical. It was a strong statement from public figures that has resulted in more widespread efforts to accept others in locker rooms and beyond.

The issues surrounding the Olympics surround equality, but are very much political as these are the laws of a country. Again, supporting You Can Play and saying you’ll accept a gay teammate is a long way from taking on a world power’s government.

Obviously, when the hockey players go to the Olympics, they are doing so as athletes representing and competing for their countries. However, they’re also human beings with an opinion and, if they choose to use it, a platform. My concern is that these players are put in a position they are either ill-equipped to handle and, if they choose not to speak out, that they’ll be labeled as cowardly or hypocritical.

Should any NHL player or any athlete participating in the Olympics take a stand, he or she will be considered courageous and heroic and will receive deserved cheers from a wide cross-section of the world that opposes this law. Expecting players to make this grandiose and very personal choice that could harm both themselves and their team, however, is unfair.

One such player who seems to feel strongly about what is going on in Russia is Henrik Zetterberg, who shared more pointed views with Aftonbladet:

“[The law is] horrible, absolutely horrible. I think you should be, exactly how you want to be. It’s unbelievable that in this time and age, it can be like this, especially in such a big country like Russia. I think this is something we should discuss and we’ll see what we can do.”

However, again, what he says now doesn’t put him at risk of being arrested or deported. Russian officials however have threatened to bar outspoken athletes entry to the country. Regardless, the stakes get higher once players’ feet are on the ground in Sochi, assuming these Russian officials aren’t simply all talk.

Recently, a BuzzFeed writer identified Ryan Kesler, based on no fact or any indication that he is planning to speak out, as the American who could be “the face of gay rights in Sochi.” Putting that kind of responsibility on Kesler, who probably never asked for it even though he’s appeared in a You Can Play video, is both grossly presumptuous and wildly unfair.

That’s the kind of thing that builds up expectations and puts undue pressure on athletes who didn’t ask for it and are trying to fulfill dreams by achieving Olympic gold.

Perhaps the best thing about this debate about boycotts and which athletes will take on the Russian government or not is that it has brought much-needed attention to the ridiculousness of the law and the Russian government’s utter lack of respect for human rights.

People are talking about it. This is a massive issue in the world and one worthy of scrutiny. There is hope that one day someone in Russia will come into power with the ability to more accepting and welcoming country, but until then, we can only apply the pressure of conversation and international scorn.

The Olympics, which the IOC made the decision (almost certainly fueled by money) to locate in Russia, should be celebrated as they always are. The location, however, should not be. Though it may be difficult, it is possible to separate the two in some way.

If an athlete chooses to speak out on this issue while in Sochi, knowing the risks he or she is running, I will be the first to stand and applaud. However, I also won’t be losing any respect for those who choose to remain quiet. If they didn’t ask to be the face of a movement, we shouldn’t project them or put pressure on them to be one.

There are plenty of capable activists who are both well schooled in their message and mission that are better equipped to take on these types of issues. While they may not have the platform of an Olympic athlete, they have the skills to properly discuss and debate these weighty matters.

As far as hockey is concerned, the discussion among U.S. players will most likely kick off at the National Team Orientation Camp, which will be held Aug. 26-27.

When asked if the new Russian laws will be addressed with the players in meetings, a USA Hockey spokesman said, “Players will be made aware of all issues surrounding the Sochi games at the camp.”

I’m sure the players will all get the questions and I’m not sure how many of them will answer, but regardless of what they say, this is a discussion that must be carried on.

This Russian law is an outrage to be sure. There is only so much we or anyone else can do about them. We must continue the discussion and hope other world powers put pressure on Russia to reconsider this law. When it comes to the Olympics, we must support any athlete that chooses to speak out and hope the Russian government is bluffing on its plans to arrest athletes who speak up and perhaps one day comes to its senses.

Let the athletes compete, win and make their own choices without being labeled cowards for simply playing the game and working to achieve their personal goals.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
This entry was posted in 2014 Olympics, NHL, U.S. National Teams, USA Hockey. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On the Sochi Olympics, Gay Rights and Expectations for NHL Players

  1. charlie yankee says:

    Every nation that finds the Russians’ behavior alarming and offensive should put a rainbow flag below their national flags on every item that normally has a flag on it.

    The IOC has some say in how the Olympics are conducted. If there is any trouble, the Russians should be banned from bidding future Games until their policies change.

  2. Randall says:

    “No one is boycotting, but who among the athletes in attendance, gay or straight, will be able to keep their mouths shut on this topic, particularly through the media?” those are he hollow words of an emotional writer Why would anyone dash their hopes and dreams to be a medalist in the Olympics because the local culture does not embrace the sexuality of some people? Why portray every athlete as a civil rights advocate that is stifled? Why does sexual orientation ever come in to discussion with regards to sports? Who cares? The media loves this contention, they love the fact that they attempt to speak for heterosexuals everywhere in support of Gay rights? Why not discuss ostrich abuse in Zambia? Why not discuss political correctness, and over-sensitivity to the point of ludicrous assumptions… Sad that we cannot watch a sporting event unless we understand that athletes stance on abortion, politic leaning, views on their sexual orientation, what they think about race relations, and does the gap in salaries between men and women make them feel slower or less competitive in the arena of sports? What is wrong with this picture? I am angered by the fact that the price for fried rice has risen steadily over the past decade – is that racism?

  3. charlie yankee says:

    Like it or not, there a lot more gay athletes than anyone knows. Many people have gay acquaintances, co-workers, friends, and family members without even realizing it.

    I don’t know if in-your-face confrontation is the best approach, but the kinds of harassment, bullying–by private citizens, as well as the Russian authorities–echoes some very ugly history of the not-too-distant past. Things like luring gays to public places to humiliate them, beat them up, and throw urine on them, while recording all of it to upload on social media for the whole world to see. Gays who complain to the police are the ones who get arrested, not the ones who do these and other awful things.

    The Russians made this political by inserting it into the Olympics, themselves. Even Hitler was smart enough to suspend roundups and harassment of Jews, gays, and other target groups during the Berlin Olympics. Putin, on the other hand, has put a spotlight on it.

    It would be wonderful if politics were kept out of the Olympics. Unfortunately, it seldom is.

  4. Pingback: Weekly Links: NHL Expansion and Realignment, NHL Player’s Responses to Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws, Glendale’s Service Cuts, Hockey Night in Canada Negotiations and More | Hockey in Society

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