News & Politics

Haber Down Under: The Australian Open Becomes a Platform for Gay Marriage Debate

The controversial comments of tennis legend Margaret Court spur debate and call for protests at the year’s first tennis major.

The player for which the chief venue at the Australian Open is named, Maragaret Court, has come under fire for recent vehement anti-gay-marriage remarks. Photograph by Flickr user

I arrived this week in Melbourne, Australia, at one of tennis’s four sacred grounds. It is the only one to which I haven’t previously made a pilgrimage. I grew up in New York, sneaking into the US Open through the catering kitchens that once opened onto Flushing Meadows Park. I asked my wife to marry me at Wimbledon in ’96. We took our first trip to Roland Garros in Paris in ’02, with our soon-to-be-born son along for the ride.

Since those initial visits to the sites of three of tennis’s four majors, I have returned to each on multiple occasions in my role as a tennis commentator. This trip to Melbourne completed my broadcaster’s grand slam. But as I arrived at what Aussies affectionately call the “Happy Slam,” it was apparent that not everyone was happy—and with good reason.

Margaret Court, the Australian tennis legend who won this tournament a record eleven times, and after whom one of the three main stadiums here is named, has stirred up a torrent of controversy after making public statements in vehement opposition to same-sex marriage. In an interview with the West Australian newspaper last month, Court was quoted as saying, “To dismantle this sole definition of marriage and try to legitimize what God calls abominable sexual practices that include sodomy reveals our ignorance as to the ills that come when society is forced to accept law that violates their very own God-given nature of what is right and what is wrong.”

Well, then.

It makes you wonder: When Tennis Australia decided to name the stadium in Court’s honor in 2003, did anybody in the joint bother to Google her? As early as 1990, Court had made controversial public comments about the damage she felt lesbian and bisexual players were doing to the sport of tennis. During a speech four years later, Court said, “Homosexuality is an abomination unto the lord.” Good chance there’s a record of the speech. She gave it at the Australian Parliament in the capital of Canberra.

Everybody is entitled to free speech, but not everyone is entitled to have a sports arena named after them. And when you have a 20-year history of intolerant and hateful speech that alienates a significant portion of the patrons who would occupy that very stadium, I would argue that you forfeit that right. Sports venues are the modern-day town halls, communal gathering places where sport creates a common focal point for our increasingly far-flung culture. You can’t go and name a place like that a person solely by virtue of their athletic accomplishment. Character has to count too, no? Otherwise USC football would be playing in O.J. Simpson Stadium.

Court’s name sitting above the arena here in Melbourne stands in sharp contrast to the shingles that have been hung at America’s grand slam. In 1997 the main stadium at the US Open was named for Arthur Ashe, whose lifelong record as a humanitarian, civil rights activist, and catalyst for global social change is unmatched in the history of sports. Then a few years later, the United States Tennis Association got it right again when they renamed the entire National Tennis Center, on which Ashe Stadium stands, in honor of Billie Jean King, whose advocacy for the equal rights of women and gays has made her an iconic national figure.

Court’s comments have engendered massive backlash in Australia, with activists calling for protests inside the stadium that bears her name. Spectators have been encouraged to wear rainbow-colored clothing and unfurl rainbow flags inside Margaret Court Arena when they attend matches there over the next two weeks. As play began in the stadium on Monday, only a few in the crowd obliged. British player Laura Robson expressed her allegiance by wearing a rainbow hairband during her match against 13th-seeded Jelena Jankovic. “I believe in equal rights for everyone,” said Robson after the match.

A US-based Facebook page with the name “Rainbow Flags Over Margaret Court Arena” has been set up to organize further demonstrations.

Court says that despite the call for protests, she still plans to attend the Open sometime in the next ten days. That should be awkward. Tennis Australia has already started expressing buyer’s remorse in terms of their association with Court, issuing a statement last week that distanced itself from the 69-year-old former star. “We respect that her playing career is second to none. But her personal views are her own and not shared by Tennis Australia,” the statement read in part.

Several former players have issued strenuous rebuttals and condemnations of Court. King, Martina Navratilova, and Rennae Stubbs have all pilloried the Aussie legend. All three are openly lesbian. (I am proud to call the latter two colleagues at Tennis Channel.) Now it’s time for more straight players to lend their voice to the issue. Some have. More should. Likewise, those who support gay marriage in Australia would be well advised not to squander this opportunity. After talking a good game in the lead up to the Australian Open and generating press interest in the conflict, the actual protests during the first two days of the tournament have been relatively meager. That needs to change, or the issue (at least on this stage) will fizzle.

It’s messy when sports events become about things other than sports. The sanctity of the box score gets hijacked by issues that normally don’t appear in the sports section at all. Some fans find that disturbing. I find it comforting. Sports has made its most its most indelible marks on our history when it has been used as an agent for social evolution. King, Ashe, Ali, Robinson—all became transcendent figures because of their willingness to confront the lightning-rod social issues of their day. Same-sex marriage is one of those issues, if not the biggest one, right now. And if this Australian Open becomes a platform to expose and discredit bigotry of the ilk Court has expressed, then all the better. I’d rather have a meaningful slam than a happy one.