Tennis Players Double-Fault on Israel Boycott

By: Dr. Rafael Medoff

The controversy over the barring of an Israeli tennis player from a tournament in the United Arab Emirates may be over, now that the UAE has reportedly bowed to international pressure and will permit another Israeli to take part in an upcoming match. But there are lessons to be learned from this episode which go far beyond the tennis court.

Shahar Pe’er, the 45th-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, had applied for a visa to enter the UAE to participate in the Barclays tennis tournament, in the capital city of Dubai. Her application was rejected; the organizers of the tournament said Pe’er’s participation “would have antagonized our fans.” In other words, the presence of an Israeli Jew was unacceptable to the bigots who were expected to attend.

The Tennis Channel, to its credit, immediately announced it would not be partner to such outrageous discrimination, and was dropping its plan to televise the tournament. And the Wall Street Journal Europe announced its withdrawal as a sponsor of the tournament.

Sadly, however, the main sponsor, Barclay’s, did not follow suit. The Women’s Tennis Association likewise failed to stand up for the principle of fair play. WTA chairman Larry Scott said the association will think about “whether or not the tournament has a slot on the calendar next year” –thus giving a free pass to this year’s Tournament of Shame.

The response of Pe’er’s fellow-players was particularly troubling. Only one player, 6th-ranked Andy Roddick, withdrew from the Dubai matches in protest, and not one of the participants in the women’s segment of the tournament withdrew. This, despite the fact that it is the players who will be most directly affected if ethnic discrimination becomes an accepted practice in the tennis world.

Venus Williams, the 6th ranked female player, said that while the barring of Pe’er was “disappointing,” other players “have to look at the bigger picture” and remember all the “sponsors, fans and everyone who has invested a lot in the tournament.” Likewise, her sister Serena, the world’s number one female player, said that while the rejection of Pe’er should be taken “very seriously,” there would be no withdrawals from the Dubai tournament.

The Williams sisters were fortunate to have been born too late to have experienced what other African-American tennis stars, such as Arthur Ashe, suffered during the era of South African apartheid. In 1970, Ashe was denied a visa to participate in the South African Open, because he was black. There was no mass withdrawal of other players from the South African tournament, as there should have been.

Athletes usually shy away from real-world controversy. But there are times when controversy comes knocking. And that’s when an athlete’s true mettle is tested.

In 1936, for example, U.S. athletes faced the dilemma of whether to take part in the Olympic games in Nazi Germany, in view of the Nazis’ persecution of German Jewry and Hitler’s intention to use the games to improve the Third Reich’s image. Only a handful of American athletes were willing to take a moral stand and risk their careers by refusing to participate: high jumper Syd Koff, sprinter Herman Neugass, swimming coach Charlotte Epstein, speed skater Jack Shea, and track and field stars Lillian Copeland, Norman Cahners and Milton Green. Remarkably, the entire Long Island University basketball team –probably the best in the nation– refused to go to Berlin, as a protest against the oppression of the Jews.

The “bigger picture,” to borrow Serena Williams’ phrase, is not the number of people who sponsor or attend a particular sports event. The bigger picture is the world beyond the tennis court, a world where innocent people suffer discrimination because of their race, religion, or national origin. When an act of such discrimination takes places in the heart of the sports world itself, athletes need to remember that speaking out for justice is a quality far more precious than the ability to excel on a baseball diamond, a football field, or a tennis court.

“I don’t want to be remembered for my tennis accomplishments,” Arthur Ashe once said. “That’s no contribution to society. [Tennis] was purely selfish; that was for me.” Ashe’s indignation against South Africa may have been ignited by the rejection of his visa request, but the anti-apartheid protests in which he took part during the years to follow were part of a struggle that was much bigger than the 1970 tennis tournament. The example set by Ashe –and by the athletes who refused to go to Nazi Germany in 1936– is the moral example from which today’s tennis players need to learn.

February 2009