(This article is by long-time Flames/Oilers blogger Sapp McIntosh. He doesn’t have his own place anymore, so I agreed to publish it here on FN)
By: Sapp MacIntosh
The Russian government has recently made it perfectly clear they are not fans of people who love those who share like chromosomes (and/or genitalia). Russia has said any signs of support for human rights (and let’s be clear, this is not a gender/sexual orientation issue, it is a human rights issue) will not be tolerated.
At the world track and field championships, recently held in Moscow, at least two Swedish competitors painted their nails in rainbow colours, and one posted a picture of her nails on instagram with hashtags like #pride and #moscow2013. Emma Green Tregaro was told by Swedish officials the rainbow gesture could be a violation of the competition’s code of conduct. The next day, to avoid further controversy, she simply painted her nails red.
To what degree, if any, do athletes qualifying for or participating in Sochi in 2014, owe a duty of action towards the LGBTQ population of Russia? Specifically, what, if anything, should the very wealthy and powerful (comparatively to other athletes attending the games and to the average person) NHLers attending Sochi do to support the persecuted LGBTQ?
Tyler Dellow was the first person I read to suggest a boycott of the Sochi Olympics by hockey players, particularly due of their relationship to Patrick Burke’s humanitarian organization, ‘You Can Play.’ You Can Play is partnered with the NHL, and has spread the message of tolerance and respect regardless of sexual orientation, and it overall seems like a great organization. Here is You Can Play’s mission statement:
You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.
You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success.
You Can Play seeks to challenge the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas by focusing only on an athlete’s skills, work ethic and competitive spirit.
It seems obvious to me, given the mission statement, You Can Play is strongly at odds with what is currently happening in Russia. It does not seem like there is ‘equality, respect, and safety for all athletes.’ It does not seem like there is any ‘guarantee’ to athletes that they will be given a ‘fair opportunity to compete.’ It seems to me that if there is any venue to ‘challenge’ the culture of locker rooms and spectator areas, it will be Sochi 2014.
Burke has already declared that You Can Play will in no way be supporting/encouraging a boycott of Sochi 2014, which gives me a perfect opportunity to discuss my favourite topic: incentives.
You Can Play’s partnership with the NHL provides a friendly, if not loose, tie with NHLers. It appears from my vantage point that all an NHLer has to do to support You Can Play is to not be a homophobic dick, and if an NHLer doesn’t use homophobic slurs, and if an NHLer isn’t openly harassing anyone regarding LGBTQ issues, they’re supporting You Can Play. Besides maybe an occasional PSA, there appears to be no active duty required by an NHLers to be considered partnered with You Can Play.
Now don’t get me wrong – these are tremendously important goals. It’s a sad state of affairs in the world where this is even necessary. There are cases where Burke et al. have stepped in simply for the purposes of educating players about LGBTQ issues, (#nohomo Seguin) where insensitivity reigned simply out of ignorance and not malice – Also a laudable task.
But it’s important to keep in mind that NHLers do not seem to be required to really ‘do’ anything. So how committed is the NHL to actually improving the plight of LGBTQ athletes who are persecuted? When given the opportunity to become activists for the cause via a Sochi boycott, You Can Play obviously did not want to test NHLers’ commitment level. “If you can play, you can play – unless someone makes a law that says you can’t play, then you’re shit out of luck I guess.”
This attitude is not limited to You Can Play athletes either. Recently, the media has taken to interviewing various athletes as to whether a boycott of Sochi should happen. Unsurprisingly, not a single athlete that I have heard about has supported the idea, lamenting the ‘years of training’ that have gone into the competition. Recently, various Swedish NHLers likely to make the Olympic team were asked two questions (translated by an individual via Reddit):
1) Homosexuals can get arrested if they do "gay propaganda" during the Olympics and even get arrested if they kiss each other. What’s your stance on the Russian anti-gay laws?
2) Do you think Sweden or the Swedish Olympic committee should do something to mark against Russia before the Olympics?
The interviewees included notable names like Erik Karlsson, Henrik Lundqvist, Gabriel Landeskog, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Patric Hörnqvist, Loui Eriksson, and Erik Gustafsson.
The responses ranged from absolutely no interest in doing anything…
“I won’t take a stance on this question.”
“I’m going there to represent Sweden.”
“I have opinions. of course. But Olympics is such a great event and we should focus on the sport.”
“No, we should go there and focus on hockey.”
“It’s not my job to discuss this here, I’m a hockey player, not a politician.”
“We’re gonna go to Russia to play hockey, not negotiate on politics. It’s not our job to change a government.”
…to various legal issues:
“We have sign something that says that we can’t do an propaganda. We can’t take any political stance.”
“Not something that I’ve been thinking about, but I personally treat every one the same.”
“I can’t answer to that.”
“I don’t know, that’s something for we as a group and the Swedish Olympic committee to decide.”
And finally, a few said they were adamantly against Russia’s current stance:
“Yes, the Olympics is there for a reason and every one should be allowed to be how you want to be. Every one should stand behnd the rights of the gay community.”
"I think this is something we should discuss and we’ll see what we can do.”
Of course, much like a commitment to You Can Play, talk is really cheap. If one is not in any way forced to back up their talk with actions, it is meaningless. It is somewhat encouraging to see some athletes (Zetterberg!) are obviously uncomfortable with what is happening in Russia and are even willing to speak up against it pre-tournament. Of course, comments from others (Datsyuk’s ‘orthodox’ remark) show that some players remain as homophobic as ever (are you reading this You Can Play?).
This interview really begs the question: why do we care what the athletes think? Their incentives are explicitly made clear in their interviews: it’s all about the competition. That’s their payoff, and hell, that’s OUR payoff too. A gay person being persecuted in Russia is a pretty far away abstract wrong for a person living a life of high level athletics. For the most part it is a life of simplicity – eat/sleep/train. Not a lot of time to make money or focus on a business career. But it is also a life of esteem and pride and for the most part, winter Olympic athletes live and train in very nice first world countries which are safe.
Where’s the benefit for a guy who trains speedskating at the Olympic Oval in Calgary to sacrifice 4+ years of his life for a boycott to help some theoretical person he’s never met?
Moreover, would a boycott even help this faceless, nameless LGBTQ person in Russia?
I certainly don’t blame any athletes for asking this very relevant question. I’m personally skeptical that a boycott would really affect anything at all for those LGBTQ folks living in Russia, wasting away in the gallows somewhere. And if we talk about the LGBTQ people in Russia, where were we in regards to boycotting the Olympics in Beijing? There’s no question China is culpable for some of the worst human rights violations in the world, but the Beijing Olympics came and went without a hitch.
That said, I am uncomfortable with being uncritical of anyone who believes that the thing that maximizes their happiness in life without any significant negative consequence to them personally is coincidentally also the ‘right thing to do.’ It’s disheartening to hear Swedish NHLers say something like ‘I’m not a politician, it’s not my job’ when this is a completely nonsensical approach to demanding change. Many of the great leaders of change in history were not politicians – Rosa Parks, for instance, was not a politician and neither were most of the people that were inspired by her civil disobedience. Though, to be clear, she was the one who was actually being persecuted, so the problem was much more personal and relevant to her.
Another point Dellow has brought forward; regardless of whether a boycott would be successful in persuading/shaming Russia to become more tolerant, it may be an important symbolic gesture. Even if one is not actively causing change, is it ok to be complicit in another’s crimes? Does it sit well to know one is idly aiding the goals of the Russian government by simply competing and participating in their global party? Is there no value in saying ‘I refuse to be a part of this mob?’ It was pointed out to me via Twitter from @jrmarlow that it is pretty damn easy for a gasbag on twitter to demand athletes sacrifice their life’s goal for the good of the faceless persecuted people in Russia. I couldn’t agree more. It is easy – and I would never demand it. But it would certainly be laudable for any athlete anywhere to sacrifice in this regard to show their level of support for a cause they believe in.
That’s why principles suck. They demand consistency and sacrifice. But that’s also what gives principles value. Burke has said that just because You Can Play is not advocating a boycott doesn’t mean they’re going to be invisible. I am skeptical, but I hope that’s true. I also hope they use the substantial goodwill leverage of NHLers to do something important for the cause – whether it materially impacts thins in Russia in the short term or not I think is beside the point.
(Thanks again to Sapp MacIntosh for submitting his thoughts. Follow him on twitter here.)