- Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine
- Author of “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron”
- Author of “Juicing the Game”
Novak Djokovic, at least for the time being, has won his case against Australian authorities attempting to revoke the visa that would allow him to compete in the Australia Open, which begins Monday morning in Melbourne — Sunday evening for U.S. viewers. The moment Djokovic takes the court at Rod Laver Arena, he will be the overwhelming favorite to win his 21st major title, finally, at long last, surpassing both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in their exhaustive, historic major title race. He has won the past three Australian Open titles and nine overall.
The start of the tennis season in Australia and New Zealand is usually full of optimism and anticipation. The Australian Open is even nicknamed the “Happy Slam” because of the festive energy on the grounds. But in the arena of his greatest dominance, Djokovic now faces heightened distrust and hard feelings, nationally and internationally, in addition to his potential deportation. How Djokovic emerges over the coming weeks and months will have come at the heavy cost of current events: Djokovic detained by Australian border authorities; his admission that he appeared at several events in December apparently having tested positive for COVID-19 days earlier; his continued decision to be indirect about his vaccination status; appearing to receive special treatment the Australian people are denied. Even if the Australian government removes him from the country, the questions of his behavior during a pandemic nevertheless remain. At the moment, Djokovic has lost by winning, the crowning achievement that could await him already tarnished before he hits his first ball of the fortnight.
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE
On its face, the story is Djokovic. He has cemented his membership within the pandemic’s most infamous group — the anti-vax multimillionaire athlete who behaves as if his fame, wealth and enormous platform to disseminate misinformation place him above the rest of us. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving are also members of the club — and even Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, long held as politically conscientious antithesis to his frightened, apolitical generational predecessors, posted Spider-Man memes conflating COVID-19 with the flu. In his own way, Irving has emerged as something of the most principled of the group, unable to play home games at the Barclays Center because of New York City’s vaccine mandate. He first responded to the pandemic with disdain, confidently repeating his conspiracy theories as if he possessed knowledge beyond that of mere lifetime health professionals before quietly choosing to not play — and dealing with the consequences that accompanied his decision.
Rodgers purposely misled the public with an insulting word dance, calling himself “immunized” when asked whether he was vaccinated. In another appearance, Rodgers then trolled his critics, brandishing a copy of Ayn Rand’s dystopian 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged” as some form of harbinger that we live in a time of persecuting society’s winners, or as the bible of his invaluable individualism — or both — and that as one of those winners, he is the prime victim of a looming nefariousness. Rodgers is nowhere near as clever or interesting as he thinks he is.
While the past 10 years will be remembered for the return of the political athlete, the COVID-19 era has produced a less heroic professional citizen-athlete. Athletes lauded for using their voices to benefit the conditions of others have been replaced by the pandemic-era player beholden completely unto himself — unburdened by community or responsibility to others, using vaunted platforms to disseminate pseudoscience, to elevate and separate themselves.
These superathlete voices now send a different message — that they owe nothing because they create so much: revenue and legacy for the suits; pleasure for the watchers; security for their families. They are the value. They are why we watch. In turn, they carry themselves as though they are exempt from our common struggle. While Australians and citizens around the world sacrifice to resume their lifestyles by suffering through the difficult steps of vaccine mandates ostensibly for the long-term greater good, several high-profile athletes have decided the only name that matters is the one on the back of their jerseys.
The Atlases have shrugged. Everyone is on their own.
The easy reflex is to focus on only Djokovic, and scrutiny of him is appropriate. His recklessness has run counter to the leadership example he claims to want beyond possessing the greatest backhand in the world. He is, after all, not a first-time offender when it comes to poor pandemic decision-making. It was Djokovic, after all, who was behind the disastrous maskless charity exhibition tournament in the summer of 2020 held in defiance of medical opinion that turned into a superspreader event. And now, he has apparently broken the isolation protocols of his own country by traveling to Spain and entered Australia with false documents. He has blamed human error, his handlers, but treats each infraction as an unfortunate clerical error and not a pattern of broken trust during a deadly time.
Djokovic will receive the attention now — there certainly will be vitriol to accompany his wide support. But it is the entire industry of sports — the leagues and their teams, governing bodies, the players and their unions, and fans — that has collectively been one of the least responsible entities during the pandemic. Perhaps COVID-19 has merely exposed the selfishness that comes with individualism as orthodoxy, but it has been the game’s leadership that has enabled the players’ behavior, not the other way around.
The United States must always carry its negligent and deadly initial response to the pandemic, denigrating mask use as a tool for the weak, and worse, a symbol of fascism, positioning the pandemic as a hoax, even as the health care system overloaded and Central Park served as a portable morgue.
So, too, must sports carry its burden. Two years ago, the industry saw the apocalypse — the games shut down but more importantly, of life moving on. In the weeks and months between the initial shutdown in March 2020 and the slow resumption of the Major League Baseball regular season and the NBA/WNBA bubbles, America seemed hungry for sports because it provided a pathway to give people hope that normalcy was possible. But Americans also were quickly adjusting to life without the games. When people couldn’t find hand sanitizer or toilet paper, hitting a ball with a stick wasn’t that important, after all.
The games responded by assuming their historical position, ready to assist their nation in times of crisis, to provide diversion as healer — and then used that position do whatever it took to survive. Sports have been needed for the nation’s morale, just as the World Series was not canceled during either World War — and during the first year of the pandemic, the public was told it needed the games. In the cultural lexicon, alongside the doctors, nurses, EMTs, supermarket employees and delivery people, athletes were being called essential workers. While borders were being locked down and citizens were being asked — and told — to take on increased safety measures to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, the business of sports was given a special exemption. Sports was positioned as an ally to getting the world back to normal. Borders opened — not for you, but for sports. Tennis players still traveled the world when few others could. When COVID-19 tests were first rolled out, athletes often had first access to them.
And what did sports do with that special exemption? It did everything it could to not set the example, to not be essential, but to stay in business on its terms. The industry refused to act on its responsibility in fighting a global health crisis. Sports adopted the divisive political rhetoric of vaccine efficacy over health, of the personal over the collective, guided by the specter of the existential moment — any possibility of a second mass shutdown. The NBA players, led by LeBron James, refused a second bubble. Players’ associations across each sport rejected the suggestion of vaccine mandates. That was a nonstarter. Desperate to win, Kyrie Irving was back on the court. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians put Antonio Brown back on the roster after the receiver’s three-game suspension for using a fake vaccine card. Colleges exempted athletes from rules that applied to student bodies. Instead of leading, several highly prominent players, as well as their counterparts in the celebrity class, immediately questioned the value of vaccines. Sports was in it for itself. Atlas shrugged.
It did not become an example but instead an accelerant of the divisions, a reflection of the anti-science, the cynicism, the pandemic as politics. At its core — a point that can never be forgotten — is the issue of public health and the trust that, as a public figure, an athlete will not expose other people to an airborne illness. But many of its highest-profile players gave the loudest voice to the anti-vax rhetoric that has stifled recovery — using their platforms to shout conspiracy from the rooftops. The leaders have acted as poorly as the players, fearing bad news from its accountants and resistance from the athletes. The games rejected — as it often does during stadium and relocation battles with local municipalities — the partnership with the public they espouse in theory but rarely in practice. Some of the healthiest, most visible people in the country are actively using their positions to undermine confidence in the public health. The dispensation that sports leagues and their teams receive — the tax breaks on stadiums, the public money for their private enterprise as schools and roads crumble — exists under the premise that, at its core, sports serve the public. During a pandemic when breathing air can be a deadly exercise, the private business has horribly failed the public. The same criticisms could be leveled at politicians, media, celebrities, but those entities don’t routinely rely on in-person audiences to perform at peak efficiency while selling their product as vital to the health and fitness of the nation, its performers roles models to the youth. Restaurants in New York City have made harder choices than the NBA, NFL, ATP Tour and all the rest.
Some athletes understand the deal, like three-time tennis major winner Andy Murray. “Ultimately I guess the reason why all of us are getting vaccinated is to look out for the wider public,” Murray told The New York Times in September. “We have a responsibility as players that are traveling across the world, yeah, to look out for everyone else as well. I’m happy that I’m vaccinated. I’m hoping that more players choose to have it in the coming months.”
As an industry, sports pulled a bait-and-switch, deciding collective health was now an individual choice — and the reason Rodgers and Djokovic and others like them receive outsized attention when most players are vaccinated isn’t because the world prefers to focus on the negative, but because these players are actively using their positions to serve only themselves. Sports has failed us, and the resultant failure of its leadership has insulted the people who have shouldered the real-life costs of the pandemic — more than 61 million cases in the United States, and, to date, nearly 840,000 deaths.
League leadership has relied on the personal responsibility of its members to avoid their own. Whether it’s MLB, tennis or the NHL, leagues have touted the high percentages of vaccinated players, but avoided implementing a mandate, which paved the way for specious exemptions to coexist with the legitimate ones. Instead of protecting the public, sports have devolved into the minutiae of sleuthing the individual whereabouts of players trying to skirt flimsy policies.
Tennis, in particular, could have made the choice of decisive collective action. Each of the tournaments that comprise the coveted Grand Slam — the Australian and US Opens, Wimbledon and Roland Garros — are the most powerful events in the sport. Each could have individually or collectively made the choice that players must be vaccinated to participate — virtually without exception. Each did not hesitate to act in concert when Naomi Osaka refused to agree to postmatch media sessions during the French Open, which eventually led to her withdrawal from the tournament. When organizers at Roland Garros threatened Osaka to submit to do press or be removed from the tournament, organizers at the other three Slams all issued statements that if Osaka did not agree to media interviews in Paris, she would not be welcomed to participate in New York, London or Melbourne. The four most important tennis tournaments in the world could immediately agree to make Osaka sit for an interview — or else — but chose to consider vaccinations during a pandemic that has claimed the lives of millions a personal choice.
THE POPULIST ILLUSION
Now it is Djokovic who stands as a symbol, both as a system-fighter and a system-fighter for the wrong reasons. While Americans John Isner and Venus Williams embarrassingly cheered his victory over the Australian government, Djokovic is not trying to make a point beyond wanting to play tennis on his individual terms, not an ally to the improvement of public health, nor a contributor to the eradication of a virus that has ruined people’s lives worldwide. Neither is his sport. When Australian authorities detained Djokovic, organizers of Roland Garros continued the pattern of sports undermining the public health by immediately capitalizing on the situation, releasing a self-serving cynically timed statement that Djokovic would be allowed to play the French Open in June.
Djokovic’s appeal can be seen as simple. He is arguably the greatest tennis player in history. In this era of counting major titles, he likely will surpass Federer and Nadal — the game’s standard-bearers of this era — and possibly shatter their totals. Djokovic is the perfect player for this era, with impeccable balance, backhand, forehand, constricting defense and a champion’s will. When Djokovic improved his serve in 2011, he became unstoppable — 19 majors in the ensuing 10 years. Like Federer at Wimbledon and Nadal at Roland Garros, he has dominated Melbourne like no other male player. In an era when many top world players would not travel to Melbourne because of the distance, Margaret Court nevertheless won 11. Like Federer and Nadal, Djokovic is one of the greatest players of all time on every surface.
He is human, given to fits of temper and occasional loss of control. He is to some a sharp, relatable contrast to the regal and gentlemanly artifice so carefully crafted around Federer and Nadal. To others, he is an unbecoming ambassador despite his titles. Djokovic being defaulted from the 2020 US Open for hitting a lineswoman with a ball, and his tremendous 2021 season where he was a US Open victory away from winning the calendar grand slam, appeared to heal that wound and bring Djokovic closer to the unqualified adoration great champions receive.
But he is complex in what he represents to his people. His presence is populist, a symbol of the uninvited, condescended-to Eastern European whose winning has forced a hostile, Western elite to recognize him — which explains why supporters in Melbourne endured pepper spray in clashes with police. Despite the cheers and the championships, Djokovic has never been able to stray far from the persistent narrative that tennis audiences love him less than a champion of his stature should be loved. For Serbs and millions of others worldwide who have felt the First World looking down its privileged noses at their people, the great Djokovic is their avenger.
In a certain sense, Djokovic represents to his Serbian followers a similar symbolization to how Black American fans view Serena and Venus Williams — the interloper to the elite, white, First World game, tolerated but never wanted by the great establishment whose overwhelming success and dominance made them impossible to ignore. Finally, they have a champion who can avenge all of their endured slights, who is great enough to beat them in their own house, and by their own rules. Djokovic can exact revenge for every humiliation. For a century, tennis has been the game of the white West, created and owned by England, Australia, France and the United States — and the exclusive country clubs and prestigious tournaments that come with it. It has been primarily a First World game in culture and geography, and the twin powerhouse of Federer and Nadal added new flags to the mantel. But Switzerland was already part of the European in-crowd, Spain an original colonist that had already enjoyed a comfortable (if not dominant) place in the history of tennis, both men’s and women’s.
Djokovic’s representing of the spurned classes — primarily as a national figure of a long-spurned, battered country — has protected him. While Djokovic was detained, his father said his son being in federal custody was a direct insult to the Serbian people, and his release set off clashes between Djokovic supporters and law enforcement, who used pepper spray against the crowds that blocked traffic.
As a symbol of Western aggressions against his people, Djokovic has taken his position as outsider and used it to become a reformer. He is the public face and co-founder of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), the fledgling rival to the long-established ATP, and speaks of being an advocate for lower-ranked players who can barely eke out a living outside of the top 50. But despite being the greatest player in the game, he is not universally trusted as a leader.
This latest episode, regardless of its resolution, only further weakens that trust — even as Djokovic will draw additional support from the anti-vax, anti-mandate crowd that feels aggrieved. Djokovic is merely today’s Atlas. Tomorrow, there will be another. And while he, Rodgers and many of sports’ most prominent performers shrug along, masters of their universe, the behavior may be theirs, but it should not be forgotten that reckless populism is largely responsible for creating the global disaster from which we cannot emerge.
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