Friday January 13th, 2012

Margaret Court, 69, has been criticized for her recent comments condemning gay marriage. (Zumapress)

When Margaret Court spoke out against the legalization of gay marriage in Australia, she clearly didn't expect the backlash her comments would spark in the very community that has championed her contributions to tennis. And maybe that's the problem.

Speaking to the West Australian, Court, now a Pentacostal minister, denounced gay marriage and cited the Bible to describe homosexuality as "what God calls an abominable sexual practice." She blamed a culture of political correctness for "masterfully escort[ing] homosexuality out from behind closed doors, into the community openly and now is aggressive demanding marriage rights that are not theirs to take. There is no reason to put forward alternative, unhealthy, unnatural unions as some form of substitute."

Pressed later to clarify her comments, the 69-year-old Court said she didn't "hate" homosexuals, but reiterated her stance against gay marriage. "I look into the Bible, and I see that God made man for woman, and woman for man," she said in an interview with The New York Times in Perth. "And I said I really believe that it’s wrong, to change the laws of a marriage between a man and a woman."

On Thursday, Tennis Australia posted a statement on the Australian Open website acknowledging Court's contributions to the game but clearly distancing itself from her anti-gay remarks:

Margaret Court has won more grand slam titles than any other player and has been honoured for her achievements in tennis and she is a legend of the sport. We respect her playing record, it is second to none.

But her personal views are her own, and are definitely not shared by Tennis Australia. Like the WTA, we believe that everyone should be treated equally and fairly. We concur wholeheartedly with the WTA who stated that “all human beings, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or otherwise, should be treated equally. This is a fundamental right and principle, including within the world of sport. Anyone advocating otherwise is advocating against fundamental and essential rights. TA does not support any view that contravenes these basic human rights.

The fact that Australia's tennis governing body felt compelled to release such a strongly worded statement denouncing Court's comments is telling. It comes on the heels of a call to rename Margaret Court Arena at Melbourne Park and a burgeoning grassroots movement among fans calling for Australian Open attendees to unfurl rainbow flags in Margaret Court Arena in support of equal rights.

The official Facebook page for "Rainbow Flags Over Margaret Court Arena" had fewer than 100 "likes" a week ago, but the increased publicity and scrutiny of Court's comments have led to growing support. At this writing, the page boasted 760 fans, and Australian doubles player Rennae Stubbs, who came out publicly in 2006, has lent her support to the cause.

"Margaret has said her feelings and it's public and it has leverage so I think this is the only way the people feel that they can be heard -- through a sign of solidarity," Stubbs told AAP. "Through getting together and letting people know how they feel. As long as [a protest] is done tastefully, that's the most important thing for me."

Court, meanwhile, seems to be missing (or willfully ignoring) the point of the planned protest.

"Are they not wanting me to come to the Australian Open? Is that what they are trying to do? I don't run from anything," Court told The Australian. "I have always been a champion and always loved what I do and love tennis. I think it is very sad they can bring it into that. It is hard that they can voice their opinions but I am not allowed to voice my opinion. There is something wrong somewhere."

Similar defenses of Court's right to make her comments can be found in opinion pieces and Internet comment boards, as her supporters argue that she is being "bullied" and that free speech means she should not be silenced.

But as much as her critics would love to, no one is seeking to silence Court. If anything, Court has received more and more opportunities to give interviews to espouse her views, which she has every right to do. But her attempt to play the victim and claim that her critics are trying to silence her and chase her away from the Australian Open ring hollow. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism. Just ask any politician. She can't be upset when her critics voice their opinions too.

Australians will tell you that sport is the national religion of Australia. That may sound like humorous hyperbole, but some of the reactions I've heard and read seem to exemplify it. It explains why Court's supporters go out of their way to emphasize her on-court achievements as a way to either justify, forgive or protect Court and her comments.

"She is an outstanding Australian," Chris Kenny wrote in a column for The Australian, "a woman who is a sporting role model, and who, outside of sport, has also set an example as someone dedicated to her community and supporting others. Australians will not warm to activists humiliating her and denigrating her on a stage that should be saved for the unifying glory of the sporting contest." I suppose on some level this controversy makes me proud that Americans have the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and Arthur Ashe Stadium, two high-profile facilities named after tennis players whose off-court achievements far outweighed their on-court achievements. Athletes' accomplishments in competition, no matter how great, do not give them a free pass to say or do whatever they want without criticism. Credit to Tennis Australia and the WTA Tour for acknowledging that Court's remarks promote inequality and fly in the face of the ideals of their organizations.

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