Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Margaret Court Arena Dilemma

Anyone who has paid any particular attention to this blog over the past few years knows that Curmie often picks up on story ideas from netpal Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms. This time, I saw the story first, but there was too much on my plate at the time, so I e-mailed Jack to get his take. Jack obliged, and posted his thoughts shortly thereafter.

Here’s the deal: Tennis great Martina Navratilova wrote an open letter to the Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne (like Jack, I didn’t know tennis facilities were literate). In this epistle, published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Navratilova argues that stadia ought to be named for an individual in recognition of “their whole body of work,” not merely their accomplishments, say, on the tennis court. For this reason, she concludes that Margaret Court’s name ought to be removed from that venue because the honoree is an avowed homophobe and was (perhaps still is) a racist.

The Margaret Court we can all celebrate.
There is no question that Court was a magnificent player, earning 24 Grand Slam singles titles and 62 overall, counting both women’s doubles and mixed doubles. Her nearest competition, Serena Williams, now 35 and pregnant, has 23 and 39 respectively. It’s conceivable that Serena could pick up another singles title, or even two, but it’s difficult to argue with Court’s assertion in January that “Nobody will ever hit my 62.”

Yes, we can point out, as Christopher Clarey does in the New York Times, that “eleven of Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles came at the Australian Championships, where the fields were predominantly or exclusively Australian in her earliest years and the draws were sometimes as small as 32 players,” or that she was never #1 in the world according to computer rankings that only came into play as she was nearing retirement. But the fact is that she was one of the greatest female tennis players in history. From that perspective, there is no doubt that an arena at the site of the Australian Open ought to be named in her honor.

But (and as they said in burlesque, it’s a big but), whereas her racist comments (praising the efficiency of South African apartheid, for example) seem to have been relegated to the past, and one easily can forgive a little nostalgia for temps perdu from a septuagenarian like Ms. Court, her homophobia and, frankly, nastiness, seems to be accelerating rather than moderating of late. Her expressed resolve to boycott Australia’s national airline, Qantas, “where possible for [her] extensive traveling” because of the carrier’s expressed support of marriage equality marks her as not simply an opponent of the LGBTQ community, but as an enemy.
The Margaret Court who's a problem.

Yeah, well, people say things in the heat of the moment and then tone down the rhetoric after they’ve had a chance to think more reasonably all the time. So that’s what she did, right? Uh… no. Rather, we get a screed linking homosexuality to Hitler, communism, and the Devil, quoting fabricated statistics, and implying some sort of lesbian recruitment program luring impressionable young women into “lust for the flesh.” So much for moderation.

There’s also Court’s “tennis is full of lesbians” line. Fact is, it always has been, although Court seems to be suggesting ‘twas not ever thus. (Possibility: there were just as many lesbians and bi-sexuals in the game when Court was playing, but they were far likelier to remain closeted. Another possibility: 1969 Wimbledon champion Ann Jones is correct that the number of lesbians on tour is actually decreasing.) If you’re listing the greatest female tennis players of all time, it won’t take you long to get to Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King. Add to that list such excellent players, past and present, as Gigi Fernandez, Lisa Raymond, Hana Mandlíková, Casey Dellacqua, Helen Jacobs, Amélie Mauresmo… well, you get the idea. And those are just the ones we know about.

Meanwhile, the arena named for Ms. Court issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to “equality, diversity, and inclusion,” and there are rumblings of a potential boycott of the Court Arena (the temptation to call it the Court Court is overwhelming), led by Australia’s currently top-ranked woman, Sam Stosur.

Ironies abound. There’s the whole “boycotts don’t work” argument, which of course applies as much to Court’s snubbing of Qantas (by the way, Australia’s other major airline, Virgin, also supports marriage equality) as it does to any prospective players’ action against playing in a venue named for someone whose religio-political position is so out of line with their own.

There’s the question of whether Tennis Australia and/or the Melbourne Park complex want to continue to honor a figure who so openly disparages their official stance on LGBTQ rights… but there’s also the possibility that Ms. Court may not wish to continue to have her name associated with organizations who positions differ so much from her own.

The biggest irony, of course, is the fact that the reason there’s a venue named in Margaret Court’s honor at all, is that Billie Jean King pushed for it. Yes, that Billie Jean King, who was long since “out,” and who had both defeated and been defeated by Court in Grand Slam finals. King still believes Court’s name should remain on what is the #3 venue in Melbourne (#1 is named for male Australian tennis great Rod Laver, #2 for Vodaphone, whom we suspect paid handsomely for the recognition). That doesn’t mean she isn’t “disappointed”:
I think it’s really important to always have acts of kindness, love over hate, than to make judgments on others. Do I agree with her? Absolutely not. I’m gay and I think she’s been hurtful to our community and doesn’t really understand us as humans first. But you know what? Judge not that ye be not judged; that’s how I live my life.
So where does all this leave us? Jack Marshall posed the question thus: “Do Margaret Court’s political views and anti-LGTBQ statements create an ethical obligation to remove her name from Margaret Court Arena?” To that question, I think the answer is “no.” But had he phrased his “quiz” differently, “Does Margaret Court’s outstanding career as a tennis player create an ethical obligation to retain her name on the arena despite her recent virulent anti-gay rhetoric?”, the answer to that question, too, is “no.”

The dilemma is two-fold. First, is Navratilova right that such honors ought to recognize the “whole body of work,” or is King correct that Court’s post-tennis comments may be “hurtful” but not disqualifying? It’s not like, say, the Baseball Hall of Fame, which has clearly delineated criteria for inclusion. Naming a venue after someone is much more ad hoc.

Secondly, Court’s current position would have been regarded as pretty mainstream when she was performing the athletic feats that earned her the honor to begin with. In 1977, a year after Court played in her last Grand Slam, this country (Curmie can’t find numbers for Australia) was evenly split as to whether “gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults” ought even to be legal; now that figure is about 5:2 in favor among those with an opinion. As recently as 1996 (when Gallup first started polling on this topic), support for same-sex marriage was at only 27%; now it’s at 61%.

One wonders how appropriate it is to demand that a 74-year-old woman change with the times when there’s still a significant population who agrees with her stance. But her current statements, not the ones made when they were more widely accepted, are relevant, and they are deeply offensive to a significant number of fans and players alike. Moreover, Evonne Goolagong, Navratilova’s choice for the honor, was herself a multiple Grand Slam winner, well-liked, and apparently uncontroversial; her aboriginal roots would also add a touch of a different kind of inclusion, in a sport that remains pretty monochromatic: a casual fan would be lucky to get much further than the Williams sisters if asked to name prominent non-white tennis stars of the 21st century.

There are solutions, of course. A company like Qantas could buy naming rights. This sort of thing happens all the time: the example that comes first to mind is Qualcomm Stadium (formerly Jack Murphy Stadium) in San Diego; there are others. Barring that, however, the officials in Melbourne have some serious soul-searching to do. Curmie is really torn on this one—it’s not that Court was found to have cheated, or that she’s been convicted of a serious crime, but her virulent bigotry does in fact give a black eye to the Australian tennis world. Ultimately, if I had to make the call, I’d proclaim that we (Tennis Australia and Melbourne Park) will be as outspoken and aggressive in favor of LGBTQ rights as Ms. Court is in opposition to them, we’ll make those statements on posters you can’t avoid seeing as you enter the premises, and we’ll make it clear that the arena recognizes her athletic accomplishments and only her athletic accomplishments. If she then chooses to have her name associated with an organization whose belief system is so antithetical to her own, so be it. But the ball is (ahem) in her court.

No comments: