Sports  Athletes speak out (for once) against Russia

The NHL and opposition before Sochi

This summer, as you may have heard,  the Russian government passed a law that attempted to ban queer ‘propaganda’ (i.e. public displays of queer-ness and really just being queer) in the country. The law is the latest in a long line of queer repression by the Russian government. Since queer rights are a particular focus in North America right now (and also, it’s the 21st century), many people have been aghast at these developments. And since this year’s Winter Olympics are to be played in Sochi, Russia, the hockey world was dragged into the argument.

I say dragged in because these days, professional athletes are loath to make political statements of any kind, lest they cause a controversy that attracts media attention, drives away corporate sponsors, or draws the ire of team management. The few players in professional sports who do often speak out – such as soccer player Mario Balotelli, hockey’s Tim Thomas, or football’s Brendon Ayanbadejo – are usually derided by at least some portion of the media, or run the risk of having their careers cut short.  So once the Russian law was announced, there was a whole round of National Hockey League (NHL) players being asked their thoughts on queer rights in society. There was also talk of an Olympic boycott, either by all athletes in the U.S. and Canada, or just the hockey players (the thought being that Russia is hockey-obsessed, and if a full boycott is not possible, at least hit them where it hurts).

First off, the boycott, while the best possible outcome, is not going to happen. Olympic boycotts usually happen during times of major international dispute – like in 1980, when the U.S. and a handful of other nations boycotted the Moscow games over the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. As much as I wish the U.S. and Canada cared about queer rights, the governments are not likely to push for a boycott over this. In addition, the national Olympic Committees depend on corporations for athlete sponsorship; companies want to see their brands displayed on a worldwide stage, and, like the government, often don’t care enough about queer rights to make a bold stand in their favour. And since the corporations don’t want a boycott, the Olympic Committees aren’t going to push too hard, either. In my dream world, there is a boycott. In reality, we have this clusterfuck of corporate interest and government indifference.

The positive outcome from these discussions is the uniformly strong stance that the players have taken in wake of the news.  Sidney Crosby, probably the most famous hockey player in the world, came out against the laws, as did Henrik Lundqvist  and Shea Weber, among others. This public reaction is due in part to the NHLís cooperation with the You Can Play project, which teams with athletic programs – professional and amateur – to create videos and other media that supports queer athletes in their respective sports. The NHL was the first league to enter an official partnership with the organization and now serves as a sort of watchdog for the NHL and its players, giving counselling when a player says or does something expressly homophobic. (One such example was when Tyler Seguin, a forward for the Dallas Stars, ended a tweet with the hashtag #nohomo, and had a meeting with the head of You Can Play to discuss the ramifications of that phrase.) Unfortunately, much of the discussion fostered by this program has centred on the acceptance of queer athletes but not queer rights in a broader, societal context. But hey, it’s better than nothing.

In lieu of a boycott, an actual grand statement that could show the Russian government and the international community support for queer rights, we get some athletes claiming support for queer rights. Is it enough? Not quite. But in an era when athletes are notoriously tight-lipped, and queer people – particularly the young ones struggling within a heteronormative society – need all the support they can get, it’s a pleasant surprise.