Russia's Big Gay Olympic Problem
This Sochi Olympics business is getting serious, and it could prove to be quite a headache for NBC.
Last month, actor Harvey Fierstein called on the International Olympic Committee to demand that Russia retract its anti-gay laws or face a boycott of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. The IOC reportedly received assurances from “the highest level of government in Russia” that athletes and spectators would be exempt from the laws, which outlaw “homosexual propaganda.” (What, exactly, is homosexual propaganda, you ask? How about this?)
This surely came as a big relief to NBC, which would like to prevent politics from sullying the Games. Questioned about how the network was going to handle the issue, an NBC executive said, essentially, that the IOC’s got it covered. (A scary thought. Remember this expose?)
Pressed a little further, the executive elaborated during a Television Critics Association press tour last weekend: “Right now they have a law that is the law of their land, and governments across the world have different laws, but as long as it doesn’t affect us or the athletes, we will again acknowledge that it exists, but I don’t know what it’s going to mean to us yet.”
In other words, Bob Costas would note, disapprovingly, that the host country considers many of the Games' athletes -- not to mention attendees -- criminals by virtue of their sexual orientation. Then: "And now, Jim, back to the Iceberg Skating Palace!"
It turns out that the IOC doesn’t have it covered. Russia’s sports minister said this week in an interview with the state news agency that gay Olympic athletes will not be exempt from Russian law: “If he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.”
In this case, "propagandize" seems akin to "exist." Which also suggests the controversy is just getting started. A bill is being introduced in the U.S. Senate calling on the IOC to press Russia on the issue. A boycott probably won’t happen, but you can bet that there will be plenty of gay pride protests in Sochi next winter. (LGTB groups are already discussing how to use the 2014 Games to publicize Russia’s regressive policies.) Russia will have to decide if it wants to deal with more than its usual share of international scorn in return for enforcing its laws.
NBC could find itself dealing with some pretty thorny issues of its own in the coming months if things continue at this rate. Bars across the country are already dumping their Stolichnaya to protest Russia’s homophobia. How hard is to imagine powerful individuals and organizations urging companies not to buy advertising time during an Olympics whose very location is a tacit endorsement of intolerance? Pressure will surely be coming from inside the network, too: MSNBC has three openly gay hosts who are unlikely to remain silent as their employer reaps the financial benefits of these tainted Games.
NBC -- which paid $775 million for the rights to the 2014 Games -- may soon discover that surrendering valuable Olympics air-time to report on Russia’s anti-gay laws is the least of its concerns.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)