THE BLOG

My Thoughts on Michael Sam and LGBT at Sochi

02/19/2014 11:40 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2014

In the watershed moment after Missouri defensive end and SEC Defensive Payer of the Year Michael Sam publicly announced that he is gay, a prolonged dialogue began in the United States about what it means to the game of football that the National Football League will soon, in all likelihood, have an openly gay player. And we still wonder and anticipate what impact Sam's courageous step will have on our society at large.

This very public discourse has included everything from dissecting just what makes some athletes so uncomfortable about showering in a locker room with an openly gay player to how being open about sexual orientation is directly linked to workplace safety law and policy. As a long time human rights advocate and 10-year veteran of the NFL, I fervently believe that every single part of this discussion is important and vital to the evolution toward equality.

And at the same time Americans have been talking about the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in a new light thanks to Michael Sam, we have also been watching the 2014 Winter Olympics unfold in Sochi, where having the exact same discussion would constitute a violation of the Russian anti-gay propaganda laws and land us in jail.

On the eve the Games, the International Olympic Committee stated that Olympians could exercise free speech and voice their opinions in press conferences yet by in large, athletes have been mum on the topic of Russia's horrible laws and worsening climate for the LGBT community. This is not a reflection of how passionately many athletes feel about discrimination -- particularly those who traveled to Sochi out and proud like Athlete Ally Ambassadors Australia's Belle Brockhoff and Canada's Anastasia Bucsis -- but rather its more illuminating of just how frightening it is to be in Russia and support equality.

In fact, just after the IOC gave athletes the go ahead to speak their minds, the Russian police arrested four activists in St Petersburg under the LGBT propaganda laws. Their crime: unfurling a banner containing the very words of the Olympic Charter's Principle 6 and attempting to take a picture of it on a scenic bridge. There were no rainbows on their banner. No mention of the LGBT community. Just the simple words: "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

It is hard to fathom how this is criminal by any legal standard and Russian authorities handled this incident sent a strong signal. But Vladmir Putin's reach only extends so far and the voice the Principle 6 campaign is being heard around the world despite the arrests of four peaceful advocates. With 52 Olympians on board, hundreds of thousands of people engaged through social media, and the support of star power like Rihanna, Sophia Bush, Bobbi Brown, Russell Simons, and Martina Navratilova, the Principle 6 campaign is effectively challenging Russia's crackdown on gay rights by drawing global attention to the issue in Russia like never before.

And Russia is hardly the only country that has passed, or considering passing, anti-gay legislation of late: Nigeria, Uganda, and India being among the most prominent. In Senegal the press regularly "outs" gays and same sex relationships can send couples to jail for five years. Anti-LGBT discrimination is a global problem and sports, which is universal and speaks every language, is uniquely positioned to move the ball forward.

In America, we still have a long way to go. The findings of the Wells report, the independent investigation of the harassment of Miami Dolphin offensive lineman Jonathan Martin by fellow linemen Richie Incognito and others unearthed a pattern of homophobic slurs by the perpetrators. And Chris Kluwe's account of his experience in Minnesota, where he says his assistant coach went on a homophobic rant, demonstrates combatting homophobia is an ongoing process. But we are headed in the right direction.

As the Games continue in Sochi, the same cannot be said for Russia. But with the world watching, the ideals of equality for everyone won't go unspoken for very much longer.

For more information, please visit Principle 6 and Athlete Ally.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with the Sochi 2014 Olympics. The series is part of our Impact Sports initiative, which examines the intersection of sports and social good. Many of the posts in this series critique the Russian government's draconian anti-LGBT laws, though other topics include climate change and censorship. Read all the posts in the series here.