You're playing beer-league softball. Or maybe it's your Thursday-evening golf league, or your bowling league. You're competing against a stranger, and you suddenly realize: You've seen this guy before. You saw him in town, a month or so ago, saying disgusting things about African-Americans or Asians or homosexuals or Catholics ... the group doesn't really matter. What matters is that it was hateful. And here you are, competing against him. At least, you're supposed to compete against him.
What do you do?
Last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere that children might hear them. This is awful and offensive to Americans, of course -- no matter what you think of homosexuality or gay marriage, the restriction on speech itself is hard for us to understand. It's wrong, plain and simple. I don't think I need to elaborate on that.
Not surprisingly, this has spawned a movement to boycott next winter's Olympics in Sochi, Russia. This week, Olympic bosses in Switzerland received a petition with 320,000 signatures on it, though oddly, 100,000 of them were Johnny Manziel's. The petition calls for Russia to repeal its law.
A boycott would be an awful mistake. It is one of those ideas that sounds good and makes us feel good -- it reinforces our sense of moral superiority. Not only are our laws and culture better, but it is beneath us to even step foot in a country with such a terrible law.
I understand the sentiment. But again: It would be an awful mistake. Here is why:
1. Boycotts don't work.
The United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The Soviet Union responded by leading a boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. What did this ultimately mean? Well, it meant the U.S. did not send athletes to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and the Soviets and the Eastern Bloc did not send athletes to the 1984 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The only history that was really affected was sports history.
Do you really think Putin is going to repeal the law because the U.S. wants him, too? United States pressure and public embarrassment could force some people to cave. Vladimir Putin is not one of those people. We're not going to intimidate him by boldly keeping our finest lugers out of his country.
2. Boycotts punish the wrong people.
This has been said many times, but it's true: A boycott would mainly punish the athletes who have worked their lives for this moment. This covers all athletes from the boycotting countries, but also the other athletes, who aspire to compete against the best in the world. Their dreams would be compromised, and maybe you think that is a small price to pay for taking an important moral stand, except ...
3. This boycott would really punish the wrong people.
Gay rights are human rights issue, but they are also a political issue, and supporting them requires some political smarts. We have made astounding progress in the U.S. on gay rights -- a generation or two ago, it was hard to imagine so many people pushing to grant homosexuals equal marital rights under the law.
Well, if the U.S. boycotts the 2014 Olympics, that would just make a lot of Olympic fans really angry at the whole gay rights movement. The Olympics traditionally inspire patriotic fervor. If you take away an opportunity for people to feel patriotic, they will consider you un-patriotic. If you take away something they love, they will be mad at you. Pretty simple, right? The backlash would be severe.
4. A boycott would miss the whole purpose of the Olympics.
The Olympics are often corrupt. Many of the athletes dope. The events are frequently silly. And yet, the Olympics are still fantastic and compelling, for one reason: Most of the world is represented there.
That is the point of the Olympics. They don't exist to unite us politically, or to change cultures through boycotts or speeches.
We don't compete against Russia or Iran because we want them to be just like us. We compete against them because they are not. We do it because the world is a better place when people who don't seem to agree on a damn thing find something they can do together.
By boycotters' logic, we should have boycotted the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, because China has a deplorable human rights record. People pushing for a boycott misunderstand the Olympics. Of all the possible threats against another country -- war, weapons buildups, cutting humanitarian aid, etc. -- an Olympic boycott threat is comically toothless. But if you send your finest athletes to that country, they can help open minds and reduce tensions, at least a little bit. The Olympics only work, on a political and moral level, if people participate.