JUST when do the religious beliefs of sports men and women become part of society’s ability to sanction their prior achievements in the sporting arena?

More recently, there have been two major examples where the athlete is being scrutinised if not judged according to their religious convictions and expressing those to the general public.

This scrutiny is then being used in an attempt to diminish the sporting exploits of the individual, previously held as an icon and role model in their respective discipline.

Margaret Court, 76, the Australian tennis champion, had earlier asked Tennis Australia to discuss with her their plans for the 50th anniversary of her grand slam year in 2020.

Court is the most successful tennis player in history, capturing an unprecedented 24 major singles titles and 64 major titles. In 1970, she won all four major tournaments – the “Grand Slam.”

Court had contemplated not returning to Melbourne Park unless she was formally invited and her career achievement officially recognised. She was seeking the same treatment afforded to another Australian legend, Rod Laver, earlier this year for his own half-century grand slam anniversary of his similar achievement in 1969.

Not to do so could be deemed as sexism. Instead, it is religion that is the source of conflict.

Court’s religious views oppose that of homosexuality and gay marriage. It has led to scorn and derision from those who are affected most: Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova and the entire LGBTIQ+ community.

But reflecting the polar views held by the rest of society, Court also has her advocates and supporters.

Tennis Australia, like many sporting organisations, have a policy embracing inclusivity and diversity. Not surprisingly, their position was a difficult one to avoid the condemnation of the tennis public and be true to their value systems, while also acknowledging the achievements of one of its greats.

Court has already faced fierce debate previously as to whether her name should remain on one of the Australian tournament’s arenas. Her presence is likely to result in demonstrations and protests by gay right supporters.

“They brought Rod in from America. If they think I’m just going to turn up, I don’t think that is right. I think I should be invited. I would hope they would pay my way to come like they paid for his, and honour me. If they are not going to do that, I don’t really want to come,” Court stated.

Tennis Australia’s dilemma will be shared by the hosts of the other three major tournaments, who all celebrated Laver’s 1969 grand slam at events this year. The US Open site is named after Billie Jean King, Court’s great rival who has called for her name to be stripped from the Margaret Court Arena.

Two years after same-sex marriage was endorsed by a national plebiscite and enacted in federal law, Court is resolute in her belief that only a man and woman can marry. She said this had no relevance on her tennis legacy or the 2003 decision to name a Melbourne Park show court in her honour. She attracted fierce criticism from LGBTIQ+ allies in 2017 when she wrote an open letter stating she would boycott the Australian carrier Qantas over its support of same-sex marriage.

“Many gay people think my name shouldn’t come off it. There are many gay people who don’t believe in gay marriage. They know that marriage is between a man and a woman and they will say that. Then you get the radicals coming at me, you have got these minority groups in every area now having a say and taking on nations and taking on big companies.”

Court said she had no ill will towards gays and lesbians and that, unlike former Wallabies player Israel Folau, had never condemned them to hell. “I have gay people in the church. It is nothing against the people themselves, I just said what the Bible said. If I can’t say what the Bible says, there is something wrong.”

Ironically, Tennis Australia was this year recognised at the Pride in Sport Awards for its work in LGBTIQ inclusivity.

Margaret Court is also the Reverend Court: the spiritual leader of Victory Life, a Perth-based Pentecostal movement she established 25 years ago. She promotes traditional notions of family and marriage and believes homosexuality is a choice rather than inherent. She had previously declared the sport of tennis “full of lesbians.”

Earlier in 2013, she wrote a letter to the editor in a newspaper lamenting the birth of Australian tennis player Casey Dellacqua’s child in a same-sex relationship.

“It is with sadness that I see that this baby has seemingly been deprived of a father,” Court opined.

Anna Brown, the chief executive of the LGBTIQ lobby group Equality Australia, said Court was an exceptional tennis player, but her name had no place on a public stadium.

“Keeping Court’s name on the stadium sends completely the wrong message about the values that we hold as a society,” Ms Brown said. “When Court uses her public platform gained through her tennis prowess to insult the LGBTIQ community, it shows we can’t separate Court the athlete from her harmful views.”

Ms Brown would like to see the stadium renamed “Equality Arena.”

Australian Family Association Victorian president Chris McCormack said the removal of Court’s name from her arena would be a further attempt to “obliterate” history that does not fit politically correct sensitivities. Court is a patron of the association.

“The stadium should stay in her name,’’ Mr McCormack said. “She is the all-time great. She has won more grand slams than anyone on Earth, male or female. Because she has got an opinion we don’t agree with we are going to wipe her from history and have someone who is more PC.”

It appears, in the end, that Tennis Australia agreed, but with clear clarifications. Almost apologetic. She will be a “special guest” at next year’s Australian Open.

“Tennis Australia respects Margaret’s unmatched tennis career and welcomes her to the Australian Open, particularly in this milestone anniversary year,” its statement read.

“As often stated, Tennis Australia does not agree with Margaret’s personal views, which have demeaned and hurt many in our community over a number of years.”

“They do not align with our values of equality, diversity and inclusion.”

Court said she was looking forward to celebrating the anniversary at the Open.

“It’s always wonderful to catch up with my fellow legends and I’m grateful to Tennis Australia.”

“Tennis is a wonderful sport and I’m proud to be part of the history of our great game.”

Meanwhile, in a place not that far away, another landmark case was nearing its zenith.

Former Wallaby Israel Folau and Rugby Australia’s conflict had reached a resolution of sorts.

Their conflict had entered the legal arena once Folau was sanctioned and dismissed for espousing his fundamentalist beliefs that homosexuals, amongst others, were destined to eternal damnation unless they repented.

Folau never intended to spread hatred against homosexuals, but offered them a way to redemption through repentance and genuine caring for their sinful ways.

Folau’s legal and moral argument was that he was being denied free speech of his religious beliefs and discriminated against. Leading to the loss of significant sporting largesse.

Rugby Australia claimed that Folau had purposefully broken his contract and their prior warning of his position and use of social media in particular. Clearly at odds with their inclusion and diversity policy.

Folau then took legal action against Rugby Australia, demanding $14 million in compensation and an apology for what he claimed was unlawful dismissal.

The result? Rugby Australia has apologised to Israel Folau as part of a confidential settlement reached over the former Wallabies player’s sacking.

“While it was not Rugby Australia’s intention, Rugby Australia acknowledges and apologises for any hurt or harm caused to the Folaus,” the statement said.

“Similarly, Mr Folau did not intend to hurt or harm the game of rugby and acknowledges and apologises for any hurt or harm caused.”

Folau and his wife Maria published a video on Folau’s website thanking supporters and the Australian Christian Lobby for their “thoughts and prayers.”

Folau said he started legal proceedings to protect the “rights of freedom of speech and religion.”

“We now look forward to the Federal Government enacting the legislation necessary to further protect and strengthen these rights for all Australians,” he said in the video.

Folau is a fundamentalist Christian who also recently claimed fatal bushfires in eastern Australia were God’s punishment for legalising abortion and same-sex marriage.

He held a prayer circle with supporters outside court before talks began on Monday.

“Mr Folau wants all Australians to know that he does not condone discrimination of any kind against any person on the grounds of their sexuality and that he shares Rugby Australia’s commitment to inclusiveness and diversity.” The Australian Christian Lobby, which donated $100,000 to Folau’s cause and set up a crowdfunding campaign, said the case set “a clear precedent for every bureaucrat, manager, or person in a position of power, that they cannot ruin someone’s career because they don’t like what they believe.”

But LGBTIQ rights campaigner Rodney Croome, from advocacy group “Just Equal,” said Rugby Australia should not have had to make an apology.

“It simply applied the same codes of conduct that apply to all rugby players and should apply across all sporting codes,” Mr Croome said.

Folau should instead apologise to gay Australians, many of whom grew up being told they were “sick” and “sinners”, he added.

“To then be told by someone of the stature, the profile, the celebrity of Israel Folau that, again, there is something wrong with us and we are going to hell just reinforces the negative messages we have had our whole lives,” Mr Croome said.

The financial details of the settlement have not been released.

Folau, a former rugby league and AFL player, last week said the Wallabies would have done better in the 2019 Rugby World Cup if he had been playing.

“I want to be clear that I only share passages from the Bible as a gesture of love,” he said in a video posted on his website.

Equality Australia chief executive Anna Brown said the Folau legal settlement showed that when brought together, parties could resolve their differences.

“What it really demonstrates for us is that we don’t need a heavy-handed religious discrimination bill to hand, I guess, more ammunition to religious groups and institutions and wind back rights for others,” she said.

So what is to be made of all this?

We all live in an increasingly complicated and confusing world.

Value systems are changing rapidly. The shift towards tolerance, understanding and acceptance are noble aims. The creation of a better society. Some would argue the shift is too far to the political left. Yet there can be little argument that inclusivity, diversity and equality for all are fundamental for freedom and its expression.

It is the foundation of the United Nations and basic human rights.

Despite this, it is never easy to reach a compromise when the views are so disparate.

Yet compromise we must, or else we descend into anarchy, aggression and abuse of the most cherished of human privileges.

There is no right or wrong in the cases of Margaret Court and Israel Folau, for these are moral constructs, depending on one’s belief systems. The impasse, typically, ends up in the legal system to be argued as to points of law.

Compromise becomes a forced matter of financial necessity.

Any form of absolutism or extremism is a dangerous position and harmful to the human psyche. It leads to anger, conflict, rage and retribution. Discrimination against all forms of social structures, merely for being different, results in depression, anxiety, isolation, hopelessness. Dehumanisation and war.

Most believe we have the right to free speech, but this is not so. If the speech seeks to consciously discriminate against a social group and invite harm, this is unacceptable. Religion, by its very nature, seeks exemption from the consequences of its doctrine.

The civilised approach to any form of conflict is to meet and discuss. To listen and then be listened to. To express an opinion, but also to empathise.

Only then, can we shift our opinion from extremism to one of moderation.

That is also why we have sport. For resolution of conflict.

It is why sport is being increasingly asked to address the most complex of society’s problems, when society itself has failed to do so.

Ludo Aequitas – Equality Through Sport – welcomes your views.


Images via BBC & The Roar

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