Jason Collins, Sochi, and the Path Toward Progress
When Jason Collins came out in April as the first openly gay male competing in a major pro sport in America, I gave away high-fives like they were going out of style. Why wouldn't I? As a member of Athlete Ally — an organization committed to ending homophobia and transphobia in sports — this was a monumental day. My excitement over the historic announcement was palpable, and it was compounded by the fact that the courageous individual who had broken down such an important barrier happened to be my brother!
Well, not exactly my brother. As my picture can confirm, I'm not the long-lost Collins triplet; instead, I'm merely a proud member of the Stanford Basketball family, just like Jason and his real twin brother, Jarron. In this way, we are all brothers, and accordingly, I felt a certain amount of pride knowing that a member of my basketball family had taken this bold and inspiring step toward living his life openly and authentically.
The outpouring of love for Jason was tremendous — tweets from celebrities, a call from President Obama, a Stanford Basketball email chain transmitting respect and admiration — and at the time, I remember thinking: this is progress. This is why straight athletes like me stand up for equitable treatment in the sports world. This is a huge step in the right direction.
It was a powerful teaching moment — one that raised awareness by aligning a smart, thoughtful, well-respected face with the previously abstract concept of an active gay athlete — and the influence of this lesson was immediate. A few weeks later, when LA Galaxy soccer player Robbie Rogers took the field for the first time after coming out, he did so to a standing ovation.
Slowly but surely, change is happening in the sports world, and while that makes it an exciting time to be an Athlete Ally, it remains a challenging time as well. Why? Because regardless of the steps we take forward, intolerance continues to lurk around every corner. Whether it's the bigotry that Jason and Robbie have faced along the way or the gay slurs that young athletes hear in their locker rooms, the teaching process is never quite complete.
Even at the Winter Olympics, which are billed as the apex of athletic competition and international camaraderie, this intolerance surfaces. This, of course, takes us to Russia, the site of the 2014 Winter Games, an event organized by the International Olympic Committee and governed by their "Fundamental Principles of Olympism." These core values are listed in the IOC charter and include "the preservation of human dignity," "the educational value of good example," and "the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit."
Clearly, the Olympics are a celebration of everything that is right about sports, competition, and conduct. The only problem is that, this time around, they are being held in Russia, a place whose recently passed anti-gay legislation stands in fundamental opposition to the values of the event it's hosting. A place where LGBT athletes can now legally be arrested just for being themselves. A place where I — or Andy Roddick, Kenneth Faried, or The Pope, for that matter — could be detained at any time, in full accordance with the law, simply because we have all supported LGBT rights in the past.
These draconian policies are diametrically opposed to the spirit of the Olympics — an Olympics in which LGBT athletes will assuredly compete — and while Russia, with its current policies, has no real business hosting an event that champions diversity and equality in sports, financial concerns and logistical complications dictate that they will almost certainly do so. This unfortunate reality begs the popular question: What can we do about it?
Many have called for a boycott, and while I understand this position, like many other athletes and LGBT supporters, I do not agree with it. Although it would undoubtedly send a message, I think a much stronger message can be sent by standing up. By speaking up. By showing up.
Like Jason Collins' coming out, the extreme LGBT intolerance surrounding the Sochi Games is a powerful teaching opportunity, precisely because of the striking juxtaposition of values mentioned above. When else has it been so shockingly apparent that bigotry and injustice run directly counter to the core values that make sports so special? When will there be a better time to shine a light on the type of prejudices that, despite advancements, continue to affect LGBT athletes around the world? When will there be a chance to show a larger international audience that it is important to speak up for what is right, even if you're not the one who is being wronged?
Sports have always been the great equalizer, a unifying force capable of blurring personal differences and breaking down barriers, and the Olympics have always been the foremost bastion of these qualities. This event has an unmatched ability to unite nations and capture world audiences — regardless of creed, color, or ethnicity — and that is why, in Sochi, we should use that power to show that intolerance has no place in the sports world, period.
Whether athletes decide to speak against the policies in Russia, to peacefully protest the treatment of the LGBT community there, or simply to try their hardest to win gold, to compete proudly in Russia is to draw attention to its injustices, on and off the field, and in so doing, to fight against them. Some observers won't care, some will join that fight, and others will become more aware of the need to treat all athletes with respect. If that happens — if the needle can be moved even a little bit more toward the positive — then that's progress worth fighting for.
As Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers can attest, progress like this is never painless, but it's always vital. That is why we need to keep pushing for it. That is why we need to show up and compete in Sochi. No matter how many steps we take in the right direction, hate will be out there, and that's something worth standing up against, wherever it may appear.
And in Sochi, we can't effectively stand up if we choose to sit down.