In the same month that the International Olympic Committee banned any political protest on the playing field or medal stand, the Australian Open has shown just how difficult such a muzzling of the modern athlete will be to maintain. First, it was tennis players speaking out against unsafe playing conditions because the air was nearly unbreathable in the aftermath of the Australian wildfires. Now a different political intervention has taken place in Australia while those of us in the United States have slept.
Two tennis legends, Martina Navratilova and John McEnroe, walked onto the court in protest on Tuesday over the naming of Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne Park. They held a banner saying that it should be named after another Australian tennis legend, Evonne Goolagong Cawley. After their veterans’ doubles match, Martina climbed up into the umpire’s chair and tried to address the crowd as to why they thought the stadium should be renamed and rebranded. But she was only able to say, “I’ve been speaking out about an issue for a while now and John McEnroe is here to join me and push the conversation forward” before her audio feed was cut.
The issue with Court is not her place on tennis’s Mt. Olympus (she won a record 24 Grand Slam titles in her storied career). It’s the fact that Court, now a Pentecostal minister, has been a raging homophobe, transphobe, and all-around bigot for decades.
Court has said that being queer is “of the devil, it’s not of God.” She has blasted women’s tennis for being “full of lesbians.” She called for a boycott of Qantas Airways over its chief executive’s support for same-sex marriage. She also always incorporates transphobia into her public rants—particularly targeting trans children—with a series of lies and tropes. When challenged about her views, she said, “I teach what the Bible says and get persecuted for it.” In addition, during her career, Court spoke out in favor of apartheid South Africa. No word as to what page in the Bible preaches that.
Martina, who, tragically in my view, has been a recent critic of allowing trans women into cis women’s sports, has blessedly decided to take the position of solidarity and now publicly demonstrate against Court’s homophobic and transphobic comments. She wrote, in 2017, in response to Court’s call for a Qantas boycott,
It is now clear exactly who Court is: an amazing tennis player, and a racist and a homophobe. Her vitriol is not just an opinion. She is actively trying to keep LGBT people from getting equal rights (note to Court: we are human beings, too). She is demonizing trans kids and trans adults everywhere.
On Twitter, Martina has called Court’s comments “pathetic in every way.” She went on to say,
It’s outrageous and so wrong. We don’t need to change or rewrite history when it comes to anyone’s accomplishments, but we do not need to celebrate them. Margaret Court is hiding behind her Bible as many have done before her and will do after her. Let’s not keep elevating it.
Navratilova said Monday, before her protest,
It’s just unfortunate because I think what Margaret Court doesn’t realize is how many people she hurts with her rhetoric, She can believe whatever she wants but she’s actually hurting people and that’s not OK.
In a video released on Twitter, McEnroe said,
The air quality in Melbourne is not the only nightmare that Tennis Australia is having. Margaret Court is another one.….There’s only one thing longer than the list of Margaret Court’s tennis achievements: It’s her list of offensive and homophobic statements. You can’t separate the person from her achievements.
Their elevation of Goolagong Cawley is also political. In addition to winning numerous Grand Slams over the course of her career, she is of aboriginal descent and has worked her entire adult life to bring health care and education, as well as tennis, to indigenous communities.
The Martina/McEnroe protest has roiled an Australian Open already operating under a literal cloud of political controversy that threatens to overshadow the storied tournament itself.
In a statement, Tennis Australia said:
We embrace diversity, inclusion and the right for people to have a view, as well as their right to voice that view. But the Australian Open has regulations and protocols with respect to how any fan, player or guest can use our facility, the event and the global stage it provides. This is to ensure the integrity of our event. Two high-profile guests have breached these protocols and we are working through this with them.
Martina and McEnroe have since issued written apologies for “breaking protocol” by protesting Court on the court. But the message has been sent. It’s not only Margaret Court’s views that belong in the dustbin of history. The honoring of her on a court where many LGBTQ players and supporters play belongs there as well.