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Russia’s Anti-Gay Laws Present Challenge for NBC’s Olympics Coverage

Calls from LGBT activists grow for protests and boycott of 2014 games

With increasing criticism of a newly passed law in Russia that criminalizes so-called gay “propaganda,” observers say NBC will have to address the issue in some fashion as it broadcasts the Winter Games in Sochi, possibly amid human rights protests or even calls for a boycott.

Russia’s law, signed by President Vladimir Putin last month, gained greater attention earlier this week when playwright Harvey Fierstein wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in which he said that the law is “broad and vague,” and meant that “any Olympic athlete, trainer, reporter, family member or fan who is gay — or suspected of being gay, or just accused of being gay — can go to jail.” He added that the “Olympic Committee must demand the retraction of these laws under threat of boycott.” Other prominent LGBT figures, like columnist Dan Savage, also have called for a boycott.

On Wednesday, Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, sent a letter to NBCUniversal CEO Stephen Burke, saying that the company has a “unique opportunity — and a responsibility — to expose this inhumane and unjust law to the millions of American viewers who will tune in to watch the Games.” The org has not called for a boycott, and HRC spokesman Fred Sainz said that it was still “too early” for such a decision on whether to make such a push.

The International Olympic Committee on Wednesday said that they have “received assurances from the highest level of the government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”

“As a sporting organization, what we can do is to continue to work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media,” the IOC said.

The Russian law imposes fines for “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, and Putin several days later signed a law restricting adoption by gay parents.

As of yet, the thought of a “boycott” is largely just that: A mere mention. Last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) raised the prospect if the Russians do not turn over Edward Snowden, the national security contractor who leaked secret information about U.S. government online monitoring programs.

The mere mention of a boycott evokes memories of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, which the United States boycotted in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. NBC had paid $85 million for the rights but cancelled its live coverage.

Since then, the investment of TV networks have become even more intertwined, only raising the stakes. Comcast paid $4.38 billion in 2011 to win the rights for NBC and other properties to air the winter and summer Games from 2014  to 2020. A spokesman for NBC said they had no comment, but the network is scheduled to hold a panel on the Winter Games at the annual Television Critics Assn. tour in Beverly Hills on Saturday.

The new law has been condemned by Russian LGBT organizations and many organizations in the U.S. HRC’s Griffin wrote in his letter that the new law “means that fans, coaches, sponsors, and even your own journalists and staff could be arrested for innocuous acts like displaying a rainbow flag or publicly embracing a spouse or partner.” He noted that four Dutch tourists were arrested this week as they conducted interviews for a documentary about the LGBT community in Russia.

“If you look down the road, I do think it is going to be a problem for NBC Universal,” Sainz, the HRC spokesman, said. “I think their broadcast is going to have to have some kind of advocacy on this.”

The company scores 100% on HRC’s “corporate equality index,” Sainz noted. But he said that the risk is that coverage of the Games, in particular the opening ceremonies, has to weigh the extent to which it promotes the host country yet casts a critical eye on the anti-gay legislation.

“There is a skunk at the garden party that can’t be ignored,” he said.

There is widespread debate on what a boycott accomplishes. The U.S. decision to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games was followed four years later by the Soviet decision to back out of the Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Activists also tried to stage smaller forms of boycott when China hosted the Olympics in 2008. Under pressure from Mia Farrow and other activists who charged that Beijing was not doing enough, or even enabling, the genocide in Darfur, Steven Spielberg dropped plans to serve as a creative consultant for the opening ceremonies.

The U.S. did not boycott the 1936 Games in Berlin, where Jesse Owens famously was the star athelete in the backdrop of Adolph Hitler’s regime, and those who oppose a boycott point to the prospect of a gay athelete emerging victorious. Fierstein, however, wrote that “I point with dread to rhe Holocaust and world war. There is a price for tolerating intolerance.”

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