In the days after the invasion of Ukraine, the world’s largest sporting federations began banning Russian athletes left and right. Based on their own rules, none of this was strictly legal.
One day, the Paralympic Games said their hands were tied by their own regulations – Russia would continue to participate. Hours later, when they realized there wasn’t going to be a Paralympic Games, their hands were suddenly uncuffed and slapping Russia silly.
FIFA banned Russia from its earned place in World Cup qualifying. Russia went begging to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The court – which has historically been able to find good in the heart of every scoundrel and drug cheat, including all Russians – told Russia to stick it sideways. It wouldn’t consider an appeal, though hearing appeals is the reason the court exists.
Everybody seemed to agree that these extra-judicial punishments were fine. Russia wants to fight dirty? Great. Let it go kick rocks on the steppe. Maybe it can start its own league and play with itself.
Having done the moral thing, the West settled back into its usual torpor when confronted by unpleasant events. The first rocketing is appalling. The second rocketing is a human tragedy. And the third is … God, this is so depressing. Can we just check what’s on Netflix for a second?
After just a few days, a line had been drawn on the way two types of Russian athletes would be treated from that point on.
Amateurs and other internationals? Out.
The pros remained immune from outrage for two reasons.
First, our divine and progressive ethics, which state that no man is responsible for the actions of his brother.
The difference between the Paralympics and the NHL is that the NHL is profitable.
Creating a fuss over who should and shouldn’t be allowed to play – even discussing such an idea – puts the money in harm’s way. Haven’t inanimate objects suffered enough already in this conflict?
Since no one did anything, no one else did anything either. Russian pros were allowed to carry on around the world, as long as they didn’t say anything provocative out loud. Alex Ovechkin’s Instagram avatar still shows him doing a grip-and-grin with Vladimir Putin. But don’t talk about it because that would be rude.
Evidence of war crimes started to pile up, but pro sports kept toddling along. Do a moment of silence of here and there, release a statement of regret and add a Ukrainian flag to your Twitter handle. That’ll show them we’re serious.
On Wednesday, someone actually did something. Wimbledon announced it will ban all Russian and Belarusian players from competing this summer.
“In the circumstances of such unjustified and unprecedented military aggression, it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian and Belarusian players with The Championships,” organizers said in a statement.
However this goes over, it will create a knock-on effect every pro league and team employing Russian players will have to reckon with (which, I hope, is the ultimate point of doing it).
Should average Russians be ostracized around the world because of the crimes of their government? No, I don’t think any fair-minded person believes that (yet).
But the key word in there isn’t ‘Russian.’ It’s ‘average.’
You want to head over here and make a new life? You want to work in a coffee shop or an auto plant? You want to be left alone to have whatever goofy political opinions you subscribe to, as long as you’re not actively agitating against your neighbours?
Absolutely. Fill your boots.
But you want to travel the world carrying an enormous megaphone, earning outrageous amounts of money, representing a homicidal regime that the rest of us will probably be at war with in five years, if we aren’t already?
That’s not a hill I’m willing to get winded on, never mind die. Just because you haven’t thought a lot about realpolitik recently, it doesn’t mean realpolitik hasn’t been thinking about you.
Does that mean this is fair? You tell me. Russia invades Ukraine and Russian players are out. China puts the muzzle on Peng Shuai and Chinese players are in. The U.S. invaded Iraq and no one blamed Andre Agassi. The only guaranteed result of any corporate moral stand is that it will birth a hundred hypocrisies.
So what one hopes this spurs isn’t a wave of xenophobia, but a conversation.
We talk all the time about having ‘hard’ conversations, few of which are particularly hard.
But the rights of the individual vs. the interests of the collective? Wherever you end up on that one, it’s not going to be strictly fair. Someone who hasn’t done anything actively bad is going to lose.
Every one of us has to wrestle with this question ourselves. History is pretty clear on the matter – it’s impossible to be clear on this matter.
But then I think of Daniil Medvedev – who seems like a nice enough guy – strutting around Centre Court holding up a trophy while a cluster bomb lands on an apartment building in Mariupol and my sympathy for his side of the argument evaporates. It’s not Medvedev’s fault the elected leader of his country is unhinged. But it’s not our fault either.
If Medvedev really wants to play at Wimbledon, he can disavow the Russian regime. Forcing such statements is an obvious goal of this plan.
If he doesn’t want to do that, he can do a two-week staycation in Monte Carlo instead, and count some of the millions in prize money he’s won in the West.
Either way, he’s going to be fine. As injustices go, barring the super-rich from becoming even moreso doesn’t rank in my books.
This decision will prompt plenty of discussion, nearly all of it geared to get likes on social media. But maybe the hint of a genuine debate might sneak in there, too.
What that conversation would boil down to is a discussion about fairness. We used to think that was simple (though it never was).
Now that we face an existential threat from a superpower, the worst thing we could do is pretend nothing has changed and all the old politenesses still apply. It has and they won’t, whether we want them to or not.
When the world gets more unfair, it’s to be expected that our solutions will do the same. The time to negotiate how we want that to look – and not just in sport – is right now.