Overnight it has shot to being one of the most controversial sports interviews ever. NBC newsie Christin Cooper got Bode Miller to cry on camera after he tied for bronze in the super G. She sensed the skier was struggling with memories of last year's sudden death of his brother, who had also been aiming to compete at Sochi. Cooper went on with probing questions about the brother till Miller buckled. The camera continued to grind on this intimate moment as Bode's wife, Morgan, came up and hugged him, comforting him and stroking his face tenderly.
Maybe the American public is hardened to seeing people weeping on the news. They see it on TV every day, as the cameras stare at tear-wet faces after violent crimes and natural disasters and war. But not this time. Next day, the blowback on Cooper's interview was fierce.
Critics ranged from media pundits to outraged fans. They were using words like "exploitive," "manipulative," "insensitive," "inappropriate," "disrespectful," and more. In an L.A. Times poll, 89.13% of those voting said that the interview "went too far." Miller himself spoke out in Cooper's defense, saying he knows that journalists have to push. But with some critics, the issue went beyond Cooper's decision on how far to push. NBC executives had twelve hours to think about how "sensitive" the footage might be, but they went ahead and aired it in prime time anyway. "NBC has no shame," said one commenter.
Pondering the comments, I had the feeling that the outrage of many male viewers came from a deeper, darker place. They were asking this question: How dare the media intrude on the tears of an athlete like Bode, who is regarded by many as an icon of heterosexual American masculinity? "Real men" aren't supposed to cry, right?
Watching the Sochi games for days now, I've noticed that TV interviews also caught footage of several female Olympians going into tearful meltdown. But nobody protested. Nobody gives a hoot if women athletes cry.
Processing the blowback, I started asking myself a different question. When a high-profile gay athlete is out in some future Olympic competition, and finds himself in a vulnerable moment in front of the newsies, and sheds some tears, with his male partner holding him and comforting him the way Morgan Miller did with Bode, will the news media linger on this scene the same way, and broadcast it to the universe? Or will they shy away from it? And if they do air it, how will the public react?
Given the global uproar about Russia and gays, it hasn't surprised me to see NBC making darn sure that they celebrate heterosexuality at Russia's Winter Olympics. Okay, so NBC did take on Johnny Weir for figure-skating commentary, and "Access Hollywood" did some interviews where Weir talked turkey about being gay. But generally, at Sochi, hetero relationships and hetero family are being painted in vivid colors with a broad brush. No opportunity is missed to get the supportive spouses of straight athletes on camera. The network even laid down some heavy story threads that went on for days. For instance, we got a couple days of seeing husband and children of Noelle Pikus-Pace as they supported her to a silver medal in women's skeleton.
Laid on even more lushly was the story thread of Bode and Morgan Miller's love life. Over several days, there were several interviews between events, as Bode struggled to get his act together on the slope. The interviews drew the couple into candid discussions of their marriage and how it has been the lynchpin of his current bid for another medal. In a way, these interviews turned out to be an unintended establishing set-up for the scene recorded by Cooper's camera man.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think it's bad to look for footage on the human-relationship side of sports, especially at world levels. Here, as anywhere else in life, it takes a village. Doing it alone would be tough -- maybe even impossible.
My question is -- how far will real acceptance of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people have to go in the Olympic world, in terms of how the media deal with us? Not just with the fact of our sexual and gender orientation, and our presence on the playing field -- but our HUMANITY? Especially in moments of human drama like Bode Miller's? Can the millions of TV viewers put up with the sight of the male partner stroking the Olympian's face as the latter cries in a moment of victory or defeat? Will the networks be willing to air that footage? And if they do, will there be blowback, with certain fans and pundits screaming "Ewww" and "We don't want to see that."
It's my hope that a real acceptance of our humanity can become internationally pervasive in the sports world. But I wonder how long this growth will take -- especially here in the U.S., where the discussion has been bogged in whether the mere presence of a gay athlete in the locker room can be tolerated.
Patricia Nell Warren is author of the award-winning and groundbreaking The Front Runner, along with some other fantastic novels and non-fiction books. She will be contributing to Outsports throughout the Olympics. You can read more about Patricia Nell Warren at Wildcat International. Copyright 2014 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.