Not so long ago, tennis fans could watch a match and root for an underdog without having to worry about who he follows on Twitter or what he retweets. But in an age of ubiquitous social media and particularly since the toxic 2016 election, Americans can no longer remain blissfully unaware of how our athletic heroes feel about politics.
Sports reporters badger athletes about whether they would visit the White House, demand to know how they feel about national anthem protests, and scrutinize their Twitter activity looking for evidence of pro- or anti-Trump fodder to create headlines.
This week at the Australian Open, where an American named Tennys Sandgren came out of nowhere to reach the second round of the tournament, the press corps seemed less interested in his Cinderella story than the fact that his Twitter activity is awfully similar to President Trump’s.
Caring More about Politics than about Tennis
Sandgren, a 26-year-old Tennessee native who had just two career wins at the Association of Tennis Professionals level coming into the tournament, had just scored the win of his life, beating No. 5-ranked Dominic Thiem. Then his apparent right-wing leanings were raised at a post-match press conference.
A British reporter asked why he had expressed support for Hillary Clinton’s debunked Pizzagate issue, and had re-tweeted and followed so-called “white nationalists” on Twitter. Sandgren denied being a member of the alt-right, and insisted that he didn’t endorse the viewpoints of people he followed or retweeted.
But he also said he found some of the (alt-right) content “interesting,” and the press smelled blood. Elite news outlets around the world went ape, running damning pieces detailing the journeyman tennis player’s Twitter activity, focusing on dubious conspiracy theories common among elements of Trump’s base.
I don’t endorse Sandgren’s opinions, nor am I a fan of the president. But make no mistake, the point here is to punish and embarrass him for being a Trump supporter.
I concede athletes help dig their own graves by making their viewpoints public on social media. But would journalists be scrutinizing Sandgren’s every tweet and demanding answers if he had been following and retweeting Antifa activists, who have encouraged violence against the police? Would they be concerned if he had expressed support for baseless left-wing conspiracy theories? I think not.
Sandgren’s political viewpoints have no bearing on the tournament. Twitter is like a religion to journalists. Thus tweets take on sacred importance, when in fact they are no more important than something you might overhear at a bar. It’s bad enough we have to endure exhaustive coverage of Trump’s tweets, but now we can’t even enjoy tennis matches in Australia without being drawn back into politics? Is anyone following tennis matches in Australia hoping to hear more about Trump and Pizzagate? I’m sure not.
Another Crusade to Erase Tennis History Due to a Tangent
Earlier in the tournament, members of the press corps obsessed over anti-LGBT comments made last May by Australian legend Margaret Court, a 75-year-old firebrand Pentecostal minister who won a record 24 majors in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Australian Open tournament was played on a court named after her. Battle of the Sexes winner Billie Jean King said the court—the tournament’s third largest—should be renamed. Reporters asked numerous players about the issue, but their attempt to foment an uprising failed as no players said they’d refuse to play on the court or opine that it should be renamed.
I despise Court’s views on homosexuality. But she was an undisputedly great tennis player, and this is a tennis court, after all, not a Nobel Prize. Court’s no longer talking to the press, but if she was, reporters surely wouldn’t be asking her who she thinks is going to win the tournament. They’d be trying to bait her into saying more inflammatory things about gays, which would offend more people and generate more clicks.
Naming anything for her after her divisive comments (she said LGBT tendencies in youth were “all the devil,” among other things) would be a mistake, but so too is punishing her now for her apparently long-held and sincere beliefs. Renaming her court would allow her fringe views to erase her record as one of the sport’s all-time great female players. And sanctioning people for their opinions will have a chilling effect on free speech.
What if tennis great Rod Laver, whom the tournament’s biggest court is named after, said tomorrow that abortion was murder or global warming is a hoax? Would we have to re-name Rod Laver Arena as well? Perhaps the elite media would like athletes to undergo a Stalinesque ideological test before anything can be named after them to make sure they hold the “right” viewpoints on issues of the day, completely unrelated to their sporting achievements?
Stop Delegitimizing Sports Stars for Political Opinions
The Left likes to pay lip service to the ideal of freedom of speech. But in practice, since the 2016 election there’s a growing intolerance on the Left for those whose viewpoints stray from what the elite media has defined as the acceptable boundaries of speech. Liberal journalists like Glenn Greenwald and Max Blumenthal have been vilified for refusing to unquestioningly believe Russia conspiracy theories, conservative speakers have been threatened and chased off college campuses, and the politically correct Twitter lynch mob has bullied or silenced countless other “heretics.”
Tennis has been my passion for more than 40 years. I have never wondered how my heroes— Björn Borg, John McEnroe, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal—felt about abortion or global warming or Brexit. I’m not on Twitter, precisely because I don’t want or need to know how athletes feel about President Trump or Hillary Clinton. My wish for 2018 is for fewer athletes pontificating about politics and reporters who will let them stick to what they know best.