Tennis is undoubtedly one of the world's most gay-friendly sports. Many former champions, including Martina Navratilova, Conchita Martínez, Gigi Fernández, Lisa Raymond, and Amélie Mauresmo, are openly gay. At the social level, so many gay men and women play tennis that every major city boasts its own gay tennis club. Given this state of affairs, it's unfortunate that play at the 100th Australian Open, which began yesterday in Melbourne, is being overshadowed by the bigoted comments of a former champion.
The timing is unfortunate. That Asia's Grand Slam tennis tournament happens to be celebrating its centenary just as Australian politicians debate the legalization of same-sex marriage is coincidence. That the Australian Open is being associated with bigotry and homophobia is not. It simply reflects poor judgement on the part of the event's organizers, who in 2003 decided to name their number-one show court the Margaret Court Arena.
Margaret Court is a Pentecostal pastor in the state of Western Australia, the social and geological equivalent of Kansas. She is 69 years old. That she believes same-sex marriages are "unhealthy" and "unnatural," that homosexuality is a "choice," and that gays and lesbians are "aggressively demanding marriage rights that are not theirs to take" should come as no surprise. Pastors in America's Midwest have said far worse. Alas, the local and international press picked up on and publicized her comments because she won 62 major tennis titles in the '60s and '70s.
The decision to name the Australian Open's most prestigious show court after Margaret Court should have been a no-brainer. She is undoubtedly one of the greatest female tennis players in history and the most successful to come out of Australia. However, in 2003, when the Margaret Court Arena was christened, Court was already on record as a vocal opponent of gay rights.
As early as 1990, Court accused lesbians like Martina Navratilova of "ruining" the sport of tennis and of "setting a bad example for younger players." In a 1994 speech in the Australian parliament, she stated her belief that "homosexuality is an abomination to the Lord." In 2002 Court espoused her view that gay men and women could be "changed." Should the Australian Open have thought twice about honouring Court in the way it did? They could have waited for Court to pass away before naming a show court after her, but that's not really the done thing in tennis: Rod Laver, now 73, has a stadium named after him, while Billie Jean King, now 68, has the home of the U.S. Open named after her. Nevertheless, had the Australian Open waited, its brand wouldn't now be tarnished by every bigoted remark that Court makes.
Should the Australian Open now rename the Margaret Court Arena so as to disassociate itself from her views? Possibly. On the one hand, they are honouring a bigot, albeit honouring her for her tennis prowess rather than her bigotry. On the other, they have unintentionally created a focal point for people to protest Australia's ban on same-sex marriage. Already, gay tennis fans are talking about taking rainbow flags with them when they watch matches in the Margaret Court Arena. Since it's a show court, matches there are typically televised, and activists could end up generating a lot of publicity for the LGBT cause.
Players who support equality are free to take a stand, too. Unlike Wimbledon, the Australian Open doesn't have a strict dress code. As such, any player scheduled to appear in the Margaret Court Arena is free to show his or her support for marriage equality by wearing a t-shirt or lapel pin stating as much. Alternatively they are free to make their views known during live pre- or post-match interviews, which are again typically televised.
Of course, there will be those who argue that sport should not be politicized. It's an argument often made by organizations like the Olympics and FIFA. That argument, however, works both ways. Margaret Court has used the fame she's derived from her sporting success to promote her own political agenda. Why else would she have been invited to speak at the Australian parliament? As such, it seems entirely fair that those in favour of equality should be able to protest her views at the sites and monuments dedicated to her sporting achievement.
Were the Australian Open's organizers keen to distance themselves from Court's comments, there is a very obvious way they can do so: name a show court after Rennae Stubbs. Stubbs, who has criticized Court's views, is Australian, a lesbian, and a former tennis champion with four Grand Slam doubles titles and two Grand Slam mixed doubles titles to her name. Alternatively, the Australian Open could issue a statement denouncing Court's comments, or disinvite her from the 2012 tournament and its celebrations. Doing nothing makes it appear like they endorse her comments.
As a final point, let me turn to what Margaret Court said about gay people spoiling the game of tennis. If she honestly thinks that, then the game that made her famous was spoiled long before she ever picked up a racquet. Both Bill Tilden, who won 10 Grand Slam singles titles between 1920 and 1930, and Helen Hull Jacobs, who won five between 1930 and 1936, were gay. Perhaps Court shouldn't have wasted her time on tennis. That way she could have devoted the whole of her life to spreading hate and ignorance, rather than just the past 20 or so years.