Thursday’s big celebrity religion story was what’s happening in Australia now that two icons of womens’ tennis have faced off against each other.
One is Margaret Court, the 74-year-old tennis legend, now a pastor in Perth, who holds the world record with 24 Grand Slam singles wins. The other is Martina Navratilova, the 60-year-old openly gay holder of 18 Grand Slam titles.
Wearied by Court’s public remarks about homosexuality and religion, Navratilova struck back by demanding that a major sports arena in Melbourne -- named in honor of Court -- get a name change. The Aussies don’t seem too keen on having an American-Czech player tell them what to do with their playing fields, but other tennis stars have also jumped into the fray. Want to guess which side of this debate is getting the most ink?
Here's how the New York Times described the situation.
PARIS -- Show Court 1, one of the biggest stadiums at the Australian Open, was rechristened Margaret Court Arena in 2003 to honor the player who dominated women’s tennis in the 1960s and still holds the record for the most Grand Slam titles.
It is unclear what the stadium will be called when the tournament begins in Melbourne next January.
Court, 74, now a pastor in Perth, has reignited debate about her legacy and how the sport should celebrate her by making a series of inflammatory comments recently about gays and same-sex marriage. Her beliefs are not new -- her public comments first stirred protests in 2012 -- but her unflinching remarks have provoked some current players to say they would object to playing on a court named after her.
One is then quoted.
“I think it would be a good thing to see if the Australian Open can maybe change the name of the stadium,” Richel Hogenkamp, who is gay, said after winning her first-round match Monday at the French Open, where talk about Court has commanded unusual attention. “Because I think if you’re in that kind of position, maybe some players, they don’t feel so comfortable playing in a stadium named after Margaret Court.”
The latest controversy was stirred by a letter to the editor that Court wrote last week criticizing the chief executive of Qantas, Alan Joyce, for signaling his company’s support for same-sex marriage, which is not legal in Australia.
“I believe in marriage as a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible,” Court wrote in The West Australian. “Your statement leaves me no other option but to use other airlines where possible for my extensive traveling.”
Why has Court decided to go on the offensive at this moment in time? Here is what the article tells us.
In interviews in the ensuing days, Court has remained steadfast. Speaking to 20Twenty Vision Christian Radio on Monday, Court described tennis as “full of lesbians” who predatorily “took young ones into parties,” and compared the efforts to teach children about gender fluidity to the methods of Nazism and communism.
“You can think, ‘Oh, I’m a boy,’ and it will affect your emotions and feelings and everything else,” Court said. “So, that’s all the devil — that’s what Hitler did and that’s what communism did: got the mind of the children. It’s a whole plot in our nation, and in the nations of the world, to get the minds of the children.”
Court has found a powerful ally atop Australian government in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Asked about the controversy in an interview with the Australian radio network 3AW, he spoke out against any change to the tennis stadium’s name.
“Whatever people may think about Margaret Court’s views about gay marriage — and she’s entitled to have them and she’s entitled to fly on whatever airline she likes or not — you know, she is one of the all-time greats,” Mr. Turnbull said. “The Margaret Court Arena celebrates Margaret Court the tennis player.”
The piece goes on to quote several more tennis players who oppose Court and then adds:
Unpopular stances are not new for Court. She has also stirred outrage for saying “Christianity is a way forward” for Aboriginal Australians. During her playing days, she was a dissenting voice among tennis players when she came to the defense of apartheid South Africa, which had denied entry to the African-American player Arthur Ashe.
“It is a tragedy that politics has come into sport,” Court told The New Zealand Herald in 1970, “but if you ask me, South Africa has the racial situation rather better organized than anyone else, certainly much better than the United States.”
Although they’re being dug up now, those views weren’t all that controversial back in 2003, when the arena was named after Court.
Now there is a link to an earlier Times piece that profiled Court and how she occupies one end of the tennis champion spectrum while the openly gay past champions such as Navratilova and Billie Jean King occupy the other.
The earlier piece gave a more rounded view of Court, whose abusive childhood and depression as an adult led her to become a pastor. The reporter tells her:
“You have gone through a lot in your life,” I said.
“I still do,” she said. “You stand with values for family and different things, so you are a voice, and then you get persecuted for that. You are not hating the people. You love the people, but you get taken that way. And I say marriage is between a man and a woman.
“I know it’s changed, the laws in your nation,” she added, referring to the United States and the legalization of gay marriage. “But it hasn’t changed. I’ve got nothing against people, but they’ve now portrayed that you hate them. You don’t really, but you are just trying to protect family from a biblical side, you see.”
As you would expect, my problem with the latest Times piece is how little attention is dedicated to her side of this story. Once again, we are talking about journalism issues centering on balance and fairness.
The story has very few quotes in her defense or explaining her point of view. I understand that the piece is datelined Paris, where the French Open is occurring and where there’s plenty of players to interview. Still, wasn’t there a religious leader anywhere in Australia who could be found in support of Court? There’s plenty of them quoted in Eternity News, an Aussie media outlet that has written about Court.
Court, who retired in 1977 and heads her own church (Victory Life Centre) in Perth, was dismissive of Navratilova’s most recent push to pressure Tennis Australia and the Melbourne Olympic Park Authority to remove Court’s name from the 7500-seat venue.
“I wonder if she thinks I should be stripped of all my Wimbledons and Australian Open trophies, the US and French Opens too,” Court said.
“Is that what she’s thinking also? I think it’s sad.
“I don’t believe Martina has her name on a stadium anywhere. But I think that’s all they want to do -- remove my name. But I think marriage is so important and children are so important. My thing is just about the definition of marriage.
“They (LGBT) can do what they want to do. I’ve got nothing against them. Just don’t touch the definition in a Bible marriage.
OK, so now we are at the crux of the matter. Court feels that gay marriage is a juggernaut that someone must stop and her religious beliefs are what's informing her fight.
As The Australian has pointed out before, Court is no stranger to controversy and she obviously feels that if Christians Down Under don’t speak out, their society will go the way of, well, the United States.
Also, how reasonable is it for people –- and non-Australian ones at that -– to demand a name change of one venue in Melbourne whereas the nearby Hisense Arena , named after a state-owned Chinese multinational white goods and electronics manufacturer, does not get a name change despite China’s many human rights abuses?
Is there a point where a reporter can discuss the mob mentality behind this? Should all buildings whose namesakes have something problematic in their past be renamed? If Americans were to rename all places formerly named after slave holders, then Washington, D.C. and Washington state would have to find new names.
Court is not caving into pressure and, as the Melbourne-based Herald-Sun reports, she's fighting back by blaming gay activists from the States. So, this should be an interesting ride. Note to journalists covering this: Australians aren't all that difficult to reach and some in the religious community might have some insights about Court. Give them a call.