Thursday, September 12, 2013

Hockey and the Politics of the Sochi Winter Olympics

Image Courtesy of NHLPA
Compared to last NHL offseason, this year's offseason has been pretty quiet.  The 2012 offseason bore witness to a few blockbuster trades and a big splash made in free agency.  On top of that, the NHL experienced its first prolonged lockout since 2004-2005.  The lockout, which lasted 113 days, was resolved this past January and resulted in victories for both the owners and the players' union, the NHLPA.  The players lost 7% of hockey-related market shares but were able to secure pensions (among other points of the CBA).  As many of us have learned from the BART strike earlier in the summer, pensions remain a contentious bargaining point between unions and management.  We're living in a time where pensions are becoming extremely rare and are more likely to be being phased out with 401K plans.  Interestingly enough, in the world of professional sports, (player) pensions are actually much more common than in private or even public sector jobs.

That's not to say this offseason hasn't been without its drama. The face of Ottawa's franchise for many years, forward Daniel Alfredsson, left for Detroit and shocked the Senators fanbase and management (with Ottawa owner Eugene Melnyk weighing in and blaming agent J.P. Barry for his former captain's departure).  Ilya Kovalchuk, who had signed a seventeen-year, one hundred million dollar contract with the New Jersey Devils in 2010, retired from the NHL in the prime of his career to play for the Eastern Europe-based KHL.  Despite this notable news, the biggest story of the 2013 NHL offseason has been the politics behind the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

While the 2014 Winter Olympics were awarded to Russia years ago, things took a strange turn this summer.  In June, the Russian Duma passed legislation that criminalizes queer visibility.  How precisely this will impact the Russian populace remains to be seen.  Mother Jones and many other media outlets have reported on the homophobic assaults that took place in Russia this past summer, so the ripple effects are disturbing thus far.  In addition, the wording of the problematic law explicit references expensive fines and jail time for not only openly queer people but their allies as well.  This has wider implications for the sports world because Russian legislators have publicly stated they will arrest openly queer athletes and tourists during the Winter Olympics.  While there are currently no "out" NHL players, the NHL has recently made important strides towards curbing homophobia via its affiliation with the "You Can Play" campaign.  Perhaps the biggest ally of this group has been new Calgary Flames GM Brian Burke.  "You Can Play" was formed in memory of Burke's son Brendan, a queer hockey player, as a way to promote acceptance of queer athletes in and outside the locker room.  It will be interesting to see how "You Can Play" responds to the Sochi Olympics, given their mission statement references "work[ing] to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete."  Regarding the Winter Olympics, Brian Burke has recently penned an editorial in Sports Illustrated critiquing the Russian law.  He commented that "...left unchecked, this sort of bigotry will only escalate. The rest of the world cannot bear silent witness."

Earlier this summer, various high-profile athletes from Bay Area professional sports teams participated in a "You Can Play" PSA.  Among them were San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton.  Forward Tommy Wingels, a former teammate of Brendan Burke, has also been vocal in his support of the project.  Recently, several NHL players vocalized their opposition to what's unfolding in Russia, among them Sidney Crosby, Henrik Zetterberg, Zach Parise, David Backes, and Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle.

Image Courtesy of CBS Sports
Some activists like actor Harvey Fierstein have called for a boycott of the Olympic Games (that is, complete U.S. withdrawal from participation).  But as a recent New York Times article has shown, the economics behind "ethical consumption" are complex.  The vodka Stolichnaya, for instance, has been targeted for boycott.  While some of the grain acquired to make the alcohol does come from Russia, a boycott would, in fact, hurt the Latvian workforce, as the liquor is mostly produced in Riga (not in Russia, as activists have believed).  Boycotts where consumers can pinpoint where their money is or isn't going are likely to be more successful.  Sports writer Dave Zirin has also noted that a boycott would punish athletes who may not necessarily agree with a government's human rights policies.

While many NHL athletes are saying the right thing, I do feel players could do more to push the issue.  Last NFL season, it was fun to see Chris Kluwe (briefly with the Oakland Raiders) write some eviscerating responses to a homophobic Maryland politician.  It's likely that the politics of the Sochi Games will intensify closer to the start date of the Winter Olympics.  With the "Boycott Sochi" campaign losing steam, it's looking more and more likely that an athlete will be unable to resist using the platform of the Olympics to make a powerful statement.

Written by Toni, Guest Blogger
Image Courtesy of Flickr


NHL Lockout: CBA Gives Players Defined Pension Plans

You Can Play - Bay Area Athletes

Mother Jones: Sochi Olympics

Sports Illustrated: Brian Burke Editorial

New York Times: Russian Boycott

Dave Zirin: Gay Rights and Sochi Boycott Movement

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