USOC should stand up for our values

Stockholm Olympic Stadium
Will US athletes be afraid to take a stand against homophobia in Sochi?
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Jen Floyd Engel

Jen Floyd Engel, selected as the top columnist in the 2012 Associated Press Sports Editors annual contest, started working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997 and became a columnist in 2003 before joining FOXSports.com. Sports opinions? She's never short of them. And love her or hate her, she'll be just another one of the boys. Follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.



The US of A is the land of the free, the home of the brave and, if our Olympic team truly represents us as a nation, apparently more than willing to smile politely and say nothing when visiting our homophobic, anti-free speech friends in Russia come February.

The leadership of the United States Olympic Committee reiterated during their media summit at the beginning of October that they have no intention of boycotting the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi because of discriminatory and immoral laws, or being anything other than friendly guests.

And a weak USOC paper amendment to its non-discrimination policy — the fact we do not think it is our role to advocate for change in the Russian law does not mean that we support the law — is actually more embarrassing. It is like saying "we are against it but not really that against it." And any athlete who speaks out speaks only for himself.

Wearing the red white and blue, much like a retweet, is not an endorsement.

Why? Because the USOC says it is not an advocacy group, or a human-rights organization. "We just play sports" seems to be the rallying cry, and its very premise enrages me. And should enrage all of us.

Part of why I have spent a huge chunk of my life covering athletes and the sports they play is because I believe that on their best days they inspire and teach, mend and help. If sports are not about inspiring others and breaking down barriers and bringing people together, if it really is just about who gets to the bottom of the hill fastest or who scores the most points, then what the hell are we doing? Because the stadiums and the money really are a waste, if it was only about a scoreboard that matters not at all.

I believe what Bill Parcells said in his Hall of Fame induction speech about the locker room as the ultimate melting pot. I believe what John Carlos and Tommie Smith did not have to say, their fists reaching up into the Mexico City night sky speaking to the power of sport. I believe Jason McElwain launching 3-pointers opens doors, and Meghan Vogel carrying a fallen competitor across the finish line reminds us how to treat one another, and Jackie Robinson showed us how to act in the face of treatment that is ugly and unfair.

We love to tell these stories and stories of personal triumph by Olympians, and then pretend that marching into a stadium in Berlin or Russia does not have a legitimizing effect. We cannot have it both ways.

I am not saying the US athletes should boycott Sochi. They have worked too hard, and, frankly, a boycott changes nothing. What I wanted to hear from the USOC in Park City earlier this month was a clear, firm and unequivocal promise of support for any and every athlete who uses his or her platform to stand up against this systemic discrimination against gays.

A journalist friend in Park City, when I started formulating my outrage, asked: Jen, do you really believe the USOC would leave an athlete hanging by himself if his words got him in trouble in Russia? I had to admit that is highly unlikely. What the USOC instead has done, by not taking a stand itself and by not advocating for its athletes' rights and responsibility to do so, is create a chilling effect. It is human nature. When you don't know what is going to happen, you are more likely to do nothing.

And I want some John Carlos-es in Sochi. In an ideal world, American gold medalists would walk to that podium with rainbow flag pins, talking of acceptance and talking so loud and so clear that a scared and hopeless 12-year-old gay kid somewhere in Moscow can hear them and believe that maybe, just maybe, it really does get better.

And yes, I realize this is asking a lot of these athletes.

It is not unlike when you go to dinner at a friend’s house and the host says something racist, or antisemitic, or homophobic, or sexist. Only this is on a huge international stage with hosts you do not know all that well. In that moment, you have a decision: Do you laugh? Or do you explain how that is not OK?

This is now the decision facing every skier, bobsledder and curler. And US skier Bode Miller was right when he said it is unfair.

“I think it’s unfortunate when they get stuffed together because there are politics in sports and athletics,” Miller said. “They always are intertwined, even though people try to keep them separate or try to act like they’re separate. Asking an athlete to go somewhere and compete and be a representative of a philosophy and ... then tell them they can’t express their views or they can’t say what they believe, I think it’s pretty hypocritical or unfair.”

If the USOC quit stuffing money it makes from guys like Miller in its pockets for a second and listened to what he said, it might have made a stronger statement at the Olympic Summit on behalf of you, the people it purports to represent in Tide and Coke commercials.

Listen, wherever you stand on homosexuals and gay rights and gay marriage, all of us in this country believe in a right for every person to feel safe from bigotry. America can still be one of those unsafe places, if we are being honest. Every day in America, kids are bullied because they are gay and some take their lives as a result. And we do things like watch “It Gets Better” videos and the “You Can Play” campaign, yet what message does it send when we have a chance as a nation to stand up to a big, fat bully and we demure instead because, well, Russia is Russia and this is only sports?

It sends a message that our talk of freedom and equality is only that.


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