Canadian Brayden Schnur, world No. 103 on the ATP Tour, criticized Nadal and Federer, the two most prominent players on the tour who haven’t yet played a competitive match in the conditions, for not protesting playing conditions on behalf of their lesser-known peers. “It’s got to come from the top guys,” he said. “Roger and Rafa are a little bit selfish in thinking about themselves and their careers, because they’re near the end and all they’re thinking about is their legacy, and they’re not thinking about the sport itself and trying to do what’s good for the sport. So those guys need to step up.”
This country and its punditry lauded Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt for leading efforts to raise more than $40 million after the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and Louisiana and demolished Houston in 2017. When Hurricane Maria, a Category 5, ripped through the Caribbean a month later, its worst damage inflicted on Puerto Rico, the Major League Baseball Players Association mobilized along humanitarian lines to raise money for relief. Baseball also staged a benefit game to raise money for the victims.
The professional athlete as neutral humanitarian is a failing approach. The times, especially in regard to climate change, are too desperate for players to be comfortable aiding relief efforts without adding their voices in the fight for more effective policies. The wound is larger than the bandage, and despite the force for good narrative, there is something unethical about arriving only after the village has been destroyed.
By focusing on raising money after disasters have struck while being silent before, the players are indirectly taking the easy way out — appearing to be part of the solution while protecting their lane of being inoffensive. For some, it is a sly mechanism to give to the humanitarian cause because, in some cases, their personal politics are contributing to the global catastrophe. Certainly, there is value in Watt raising $40 million to help people, but while sports are applauded by the public and positioned as a force for good, some players as well as some league officials and team owners prominently favor politicians whose policies contribute to rising temperatures and threaten the planet. Sports in turn receive an odd and undeserved dispensation, celebrated for their post-disaster contributions while also, in many cases, killing the planet at the ballot box. It is also mitigated by the paternalistic reality of the equation: players are applauded for raising money for disaster relief but many don’t dare lend their voices to preventing one. Certainly Federer and Nadal strive to be positive influences on the tour and the sport, but the value of their $500,000 donation is undermined by their silence to Tennis Australia, where players without such high profiles need their star power.
And this — to risk being offensive, to not always be the one who can be counted on as an ally, to accept the challenge of periodically being in opposition to the power — is what the athlete has been conditioned to fear. Raising money after the fact is the safe route, for advocating a position transfers them from a neutral space into a political one. As conditions deteriorate and Tennis Australia says little to address players’ concerns, two players, Alize Cornet of France and Canada’s Vasek Pospisil, have reintroduced the call for a tennis union. The less-accomplished players, it should be noted, also have more power than they think in banding together, for they could take the bold risk of not playing to force the sport and its legends to listen. To have a two-week tournament, the greats, after all, must play someone.
The players are part of the environmental problem. They fly hundreds of thousands of miles internationally on private jets, and their carbon footprints contribute to both the disasters for which they raise money and the environmental issues that require their advocacy. This conflict, however, should not reduce them to inertia, but motivate them to think critically about their own personal impact on the environment.
With a unified front of players choosing to be personally responsible, publicly vocal and politically proactive instead of waiting for the next disaster before taking out the checkbook, the optics would change, as would their relationships to power. Players would enter a new space, less comfortable to a public and the governing bodies that expect their neutral docility, but in return for stepping out of their lane, their presence would be far more impactful. They would not lose, but rather gain, able to provide joy and normalcy to the public while demanding action from the power. As the Australian Open tournament continues and the air quality worsens, it becomes increasingly clear that the players, struggling to achieve the basic feat of hitting a forehand and simultaneously taking a good, clean breath, have very little choice. Just like the rest of us.