SOCHI – Michael Sam’s announcement is spurring us to ask whether the NFL is ready to accept its first openly gay player. But we must also ask: Are the gay people of Russia finally ready to accept the NFL? My sources say no.
You might think that in 2014, everybody would be comfortable around the NFL. But I went to a gay club here called Club Mayak to find out for certain. A gentleman opened the door and immediately said, “This is a gay bar,” which was helpful because the drag queens and video of men sponge-bathing each other were only subtle clues.
I asked an employee named Vladimir if he likes American football. He said, “No.”
Hurtful, to an American like me.
He then said, “American soccer, Russian football,” and I thought, “Wow, here we are in 2014, and he can’t even admit that Americans also have a game called football. And I thought we had come so far.”
I showed him a picture of Tom Brady, and asked if he recognized him.
Look, nobody here is judging pro football players, OK? They can do what they want to do in the privacy of their own country. I even got the sense Vladimir would welcome Tom Brady at Club Mayak as long as Brady didn’t shove his playbook in anybody’s face.
But at Club Mayak, there are no televisions showing NFL highlights. No fantasy football leagues. Nobody talking about the NFL draft, which is a mere three months away. It’s like being trapped in the ’50s. You don’t want to bring a football player into the Club Mayak culture -- especially a tall player, who might hit his head on a chandelier.
This will seem downright Neanderthal to many Americans, but there are a lot of people in the NFL who are still seen as social misfits in many parts of the world: lateral-movement fetishists, bench-press worshippers and those freaks with a compulsive desire to watch 18 hours of film in dark rooms while chain-drinking diet Coke.
Do you realize that every year Those People have a perverse ritual in which they make men run 40 yards in skin-tight outfits and record their times down to hundredths of a second?
Hey, they have a right to do that. Just not in front of the children.
A sign outside Club Mayak (which also calls itself Cabaret Mayak and Café Mayak) posts the rather ambitious hours of 6 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. I’m sure it is just a coincidence that Sochi is nine hours ahead of the Eastern time zone, and closing at 5:30 a.m. means everybody gets kicked out at the start of Sunday Night Football.
Russian politicians are supposedly trying to eradicate homosexuality, but frankly they are doing a lousy job. The entire city of Sochi is covered in rainbows, and homosexuals don’t seem the least bit concerned about Vladimir Putin’s public rebukes. This will sound cynical, and maybe Americans can’t fathom it, but it’s almost as if Putin is just playing to his base with empty family-values talk.
I went to Club Mayak with my friend and fellow sportswriter Chuck Culpepper of Sports on Earth, not because he is gay, but because he has openly embraced football for many years. The first two songs we heard were a remix of “I Will Survive,” and Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro,” in what can only be described as a gay-bar DJ’s tribute to gay bars.
Chuck and I quickly discovered homosexuals are not the only Russians who are intolerant of football. On the dance floor at Club Mayak, a man drank out of a woman’s cleavage, seemingly unconcerned about Peyton Manning’s legacy. Can you imagine what would happen if a flamboyantly technical coach like Jon Gruden walked in and started diagramming “Spider 2 Y Banana” on a napkin? People would look at him like he was from another planet. And maybe that isn’t right, but that’s the way it is.
Is there any hope for the NFL to gain acceptance among the Russian gays who shun them? Well, perhaps a really strong bartender can keep his customers in line and make them understand that if a coach wants to switch from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 so he can use aggressive one-gap principles and urge his safety creep into the box, then he should be allowed to do that in a free society. But I wouldn’t count on it.
Instead, the gay club-goers of Russia appear content to swim in their pool of abs, lots and lots of abs, so very many abs, and pretend the NFL doesn’t even exist.
Don’t give up hope, outcast NFL general managers. Maybe in 10 or 15 years, the gay people of Russia will be willing to accept you for who you are. But the reality is that when it comes to social progress, you have a long, long way to go.