Transforming Sports Culture: Sochi and the NFL

Sports headlines have been dominating the Internet this week and last. And just as current are stories centered on sports and their impact on LGBTQI athletes as well as the way sports cultures and spaces shape public discourse on gender and sexuality.

For instance, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law has been the focus of much attention. Earlier this week, Richard Socarides, blogging for The New Yorker, noted the valiant advocacy of individuals like Hudson Taylor (who, as Socarides noted, was “the only head of a United States-based gay-rights group to attend the Sochi Olympics during its first weekend); NGOs like Athlete Ally and All Out (the co-creators of the anti-discrimination Principle 6 campaign); and corporations, like Google, who seek to raise public awareness and pointedly critiqued Russia’s anti-gay laws.

Beyond the local and transnational advocacy centered on recognizing and undoing the anti-gay legislation in Russia, some cultural workers are also trying to help uncover the stories of everyday life—material realities, real-time experiences of discrimination, the role of institutions in the lives of LGBTQI people—that are often invisible. For example, Milene Larsson, writer and host of the recent Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia documentary, was recently interviewed on CNN’s Global Public Square Blog. Larsson reporting on the state of young LGBTQI people in Russia stated the following:

What worried me even more was the attitude amongst young people, whose replies to my questions about their view of homosexuality were bordering on aggressive. There is no education in schools about what homosexuality is so the ignorance surrounding it isn’t surprising. According to a survey by the Levada Center, 79 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox, and as you can imagine, the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t condone homosexuality.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian Orthodox values became the cornerstone of the new Russian identity, replacing the communist mindset. The LGBT activists’ theory is that Putin’s reason for passing the anti-gay “propaganda” law was to sway the Orthodox majority in order to extend his voter base. Unfortunately, when an attitude like homophobia becomes law, it further mobilizes people against the gay community, which has led to a spike in hate crimes.

Larsoon’s comment illuminates yet another facet of the complex proliferation of anti-homosexuality discourse within Russia, namely, the ostensible force of religiosity. The Russian Orthodox Church, which recently proposed a referendum on banning same-sex sexual relations, is also evidenced as an institutional body that is shaping public thought on sexuality and the establishment of law in a country that is now at the center of worldwide scrutiny as it plays host to the Olympics.

More importantly, though, Larsoon’s response provides an opportunity to think about sports and religion as sociocultural systems that conspire in the shaping of sex and gender talk, and expression, globally. Indeed, it should be no surprise that both sports and religious institutions are often heralded as the “last closets.” And, yet, more recent events, like the disclosure of college football star and NFL hopeful Michael Sam, has also drawn attention to the intricate connection between sports culture and religiosity. 

Take for example, the titles of recent blogs written in response to Sam’s moment of “inviting in.” Blogs with titles, like “How a Gay Football Player Could Help Redeem the Church” and “Catholics Tweet Their Support for Mike Sam,” can be assessed on the Internet. Moreover, and specific to the intersection of professional football culture and religion, Curtis Eichelberger’s book Men of Sunday: How Faith Guides the Players, Coaches, and Wives of the NFL, which was published in 2012, “reveals how Sunday’s greatest rely on God to face issues such as drug abuse, family crisis, injuries, and temptations resulting from fame and fortune.”  Writings like these are evidence that sports and religion are not mutually exclusive. They are powerful institutions that shape the lives of LGBTQI people globally.

Indeed, sports and religiosity function as disciplining cultures. Both teach us, for good or bad, how to be. It seems that present is an opportunity to shift the discourse on homosexuality within sports and religious cultures. Current happenings like the Sochi Olympics protests and announcement of Michael Sam’s sexual identity remind us, however, that people construct spaces as much as they are shaped by them. And when people shift, spaces, like Russia and the NFL, can be transformed, as well.