A month ago, Britain’s top men’s player, Cameron Norrie, was put on the spot about Wimbledon’s decision to ban Russian and Belarusian players at this year’s tournament. As a result of that choice, Wimbledon has had its ranking points stripped by the ATP and WTA tours.
So on the one hand, the war in Ukraine. On the other, you mean this might cost me a few bucks? Tough one.
Nowadays, even fringe-y stars such as Norrie understand the easy two-step process when it comes to navigating tricky political disputes.
Step one: Check what everyone’s saying on Twitter.
Step two: Agree with that, but without saying anything so concrete that it might come back around on you if Twitter changes its mind.
“It’s an extremely difficult situation with everything going on with the war, but for me it’s tough – having a home slam and not gaining any ranking points for that,” Norrie said. “You’re not really playing for anything. You’re playing like an exhibition.”
In other words – war is hell, but what about my problems?
Unsure exactly which way this one would end up swinging, other players also picked up on the “exhibition” angle. That seemed like a safe way to stay on the right side of social media.
“I could see a lot of top players, well maybe a few top players, not playing because of [the ranking points situation],” Norrie said.
How about zero top players? Could you see zero top players skipping Wimbledon? Because that’s how it’s turned out.
Novak Djokovic called the decision to ban Russians “crazy.” Rafael Nadal called it “very unfair.” Women’s No. 1 Iga Swiatek said that the result of the decision was “chaos.” All three will play Wimbledon this year.
Everyone who’s anyone, and neither injured nor Russian, will be here. So much for moral outrage.
How impactful is the Russia ban? Not very. If our barometer for cross-cultural fairness comes down to whether a bunch of exceedingly rich twentysomethings are denied the opportunity to grow even richer, we need to have a little convo about what ‘fairness’ means. Two weeks from now, few will remember it happened.
What will resonate is how the All England Lawn and Tennis Club (AELTC), Wimbledon’s organizer, dealt with the Russia ban. It made its own call. It refused to apologize for the call it made. And then the problem just sort of went away.
It seems simple when you say it like that, but few modern sports organizations can manage the trick. If the culture is upstream of politics, then sports is somewhere in between and forgot its life jacket.
Most leagues crowd-source their ideas, which then blow up in their hands, causing a panicked flailing by officials who just thought they were doing what everyone wanted, which encourages more dissent from within and more outrage from without. It is a virtuous circle of viciousness.
Watching the NFL or NHL deal with a comms crisis is like watching the guys in the control booth at Chernobyl pulling nuclear rods. The harder they try, the hotter things get.
It’s possible that being British helps. It’s hard to imagine a Canadian or American sports executive coming out with a line like, “It is a considered view reached as to what is the right and responsible decision in all circumstances,” as AELTC chairman Ian Hewitt did in defence of the ban. That sentence sounds impeccable and means nothing, rendering it irrefutable.
It’s also true that Wimbledon has its brand to stand on. The two main lures of sport are social cachet and money. Wimbledon can offer more of both than anyone else.
Knowing it is British and rich gives Wimbledon a competitive advantage, but others can copy the basic principle: If you don’t like it, leave.
You don’t like what we’ve said or done or not said or not done? Great. We can all agree to disagree. But careful how far you go with the outrage. Because our ultimate offer to you is that you can take it on down the road, pal. If you don’t like it, nobody’s forcing you to play.
This approach is foolproof because everyone today wants to play more than they want to be right. Players of all stripes have grown so used to being asked to make moral judgements, they seem to believe judgement is all that’s required of them. Nobody ever follows through.
That’s because they’re never asked to. Wimbledon just asked. The usual suspects popped off without thinking too hard about it. When organizers did not scramble to address their objections, everyone decided it was easier to pretend nothing had happened.
One presumes that the first couple of days of the tournament will be taken up by this same pantomime – journalists pressing players to say something; players saying some variation of ‘It’s a tough situation, but …’; and the key parties continuing to collect their cheques.
In the end, everyone has defended their own philosophical patch. The AELTC is tough on war. The ATP and WTA keep all their constituents in line. The players get to pretend to care. The public gets its tennis.
The only loser in all this is the concept of sports activism. Once you start pressing, there’s not much to it, is there?
This is the fundamental way most sports activism of today differs from the sports activism of the sixties or seventies – it’s popular. Popular activism is not activism. It’s cheerleading.
There’s nothing wrong with it as such, but cheerleading is easy to do. Activism is hard. It has consequences. And more often than not, there is a cost to it.
Wimbledon didn’t ask players to think one way or the other about Russia and the war in Ukraine. It only forced them to confront the cost of picking a side.
Depending on how you look at it, everyone either decided they’d prefer not to pay that cost or chose their own side.
Which is fine as well. Everyone need not have an opinion on everything. But if you’re going to do nothing about a “very unfair” situation, then why are you talking about it at all?