Acton Institute Powerblog

The Djokovic affair proves our elites no longer believe in fair play

(Image credit: Associated Press)

Although the deported world-class tennis pro has few defenders, his cause is one we all should care about, because excellence is something we should all care about. […]

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Fair play and the rule of law are essential conditions of our civilization, regulating private and public life. We would be ashamed to look for success, prosperity, victory without them. People whom we suspect of unfair dealings or illegality stand to lose everything concerning their reputation, to say nothing of what authorities might do to them. And yet, come a time of real crisis, some might not hold on to these beliefs in quite the same way.

Thus, the Novak Djokovic affair in Australia. He was granted a visa to defend his title at the Australian Open now underway. He arrived accordingly. He was not vaccinated against COVID, but he had the immunity given by a very recent previous infection. Tennis Australia, organizer of the tournament, though not a legal authority, had decided that an infection would be grounds for exemption from rules for the players to be vaccinated; nor was it the only ground for exemption. Yet upon his arrival, Djokovic was questioned, arrested, and had his visa denied.  Then a court heard his case and restored it to him. Then this court decision was rejected by the Immigration Minister, explicitly for political reasons. The result is deportation and a three-year ban from the island-continent. The authority of the government to act as it did is not in question, but the ugliness of the government’s actions—its contradictions, moralism, and patent cowardice—at least raises an eyebrow if it does not arouse indignation.

Djokovic’s personal freedom was sacrificed during that process, of course, with a shamelessness none of us would want to endure but that is not as infrequent as we think. The man showed himself to be more law abiding and decent than the entire federal government—from the ordinary security personnel up to a contemptible minister. This is his press statement: “I’m extremely disappointed with the court ruling to dismiss my application for judicial review of the minister’s decision to cancel my visa. … I respect the court’s ruling and I will cooperate with the relevant authorities in relation to my departure from the country.” He went on to say public attention should not be fixed on him but instead on the game, the important thing.

Why should the ugliness of authority matter? Well perhaps it doesn’t. I hasten to add that elite opinion in America and around the world is not on Djokovic’s side, since it’s almost uniformly in favor of any measure that claims to fight the epidemic, regardless of results or plausibility, to say nothing of civil rights or our habits and beliefs concerning the public good. Although this is an obvious struggle between a lone individual and a vast impersonal bureaucratic authority, few seem to be on his side. Shouldn’t every instinct of liberalism urge the defense of the individual against a power that attacks him in an unaccountable way?

The rule of law has been weakened in a way that might nevertheless prove popular in Australia. As Helen Dale argues, Australia is a former criminal colony—not only its prisoners, but especially its jailers give the regime its character. Freedom is not understood there as in America or Britain. Competent administration goes together with a punitive egalitarianism—it’s rather dangerous to be individualistic. Still, it’s shocking to realize that Djokovic, a child under Yugoslav totalitarianism, never before had legal problems, yet is deported from an ostensibly civilized liberal democracy.

Now let us look at a problem that is also important—fair play. As a principle underlying sports competitions, it is based, as the rule of law is in politics, on the assumption that human beings have a capacity for excellence, to do well in accordance with skill, knowledge, and work, and that those natural powers revealed through competition are important and good.

Further, rule of law involves a belief that government need not be based strictly or only on fear. Fair play also has that claim to nobility—that the winners will deserve their victory and that this will not be a catastrophe for the losers. There is a hierarchy that comes out of the egalitarian principles of fair play for all, but it is a hierarchy of excellence, of human achievement, which we feel somehow benefits all even if it separates the best from the rest.

Well, Djokovic is the greatest champion in the history of Australian Open. It was his first Grand Slam tournament victory, and he has won it an unprecedented nine times in his career, including the last consecutive three contests. Let me add, he has been the top ranked tennis player for about seven years now. To throw him out and play the Australian Open without him is not just a dishonor to the tournament; it’s a dishonor to all the athletes, who can now compete to win a second-rate prize because victory, apparently, is much more important than finding out who is the best man.

Our athletes are usually unmanly, even cowardly at times. We have learned this in America to our shame by watching them apologize to Chinese tyrants and seek to meet ideological demands even as they hold in contempt many of their fellow Americans: Consider LeBron James, James Harden, and others just in the NBA, as recently pointed out again by Enes Kanter Freedom, who is almost alone in speaking up against Chinese tyranny and genocide. Politics is not their job and human rights might be a big charade—but do they have to humiliate themselves before a tyranny they would never wish to live under? Still, it’s more shocking in tennis, a sport all about individual competition, where none of the athletes complained about the decision to deport Djokovic. The three most successful players of this generation, Dkokovic, Nadal, and Federer, are tied with 20 Grand Slam competition wins each. Federer is injured; politics has removed Djokovic from competition; so Nadal could now win an unprecedented 21st tournament, but it would be an empty victory. Does no one feel shame when the prize of excellence is offered unearned?

Further, tennis has a perhaps uniquely strong connection to the aristocratic past and the gentlemanly inheritance of Europe. It’s not an accident that England, America, and Australia are three of the Grand Slam tournaments, and France the fourth. We can even see there the politics of the 20th century, since these are the allied countries of the World Wars and the Cold War. The globalization of democracy and the democratization of tennis went hand in hand, making players celebrities in the process. It would be a shock if the dignity of the athletes was suddenly taken away by bureaucracies and the sport reduced to advertising, branding, and success worship.

I for one doubt whether our elites really care about individual success, achievement, excellence. These things used to matter to liberalism greatly, because liberalism used to be humanistic, that is, dedicated to human greatness. It was so dedicated to this belief in greatness that human nature, properly understood and arranged socially, politically, and scientifically, was thought equal to the cosmic drama in which we find ourselves. Individual excellence is some evidence of the powers we could use to deal with our problems; athletic competition reveals that suffering leads to greatness. That is why it is noble, and I’m not sure our elites understand or care about this anymore.

We, however, should care if we want to restore a belief in human greatness, human nature, and the strength of our social arrangements. Fair play and rule of law go together, as I said, as private and public arrangements, but only if they are also standards by which we judge ourselves, not merely in terms of success worship, what we can get away with, for example, but in more exalted terms—what we would be admired for and what would make us feel ashamed of ourselves if we failed to do it. We will always need elites, but we cannot respect elites that do not believe in fair play, because it shows they do not care about excellence.

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.