Wimbledon 2021

What matters about the Djokovic case

By Matt Zemek

Everyone has an opinion about the Novak Djokovic situation and how it was handled by various parties. It’s hard if not impossible to find a neutral-ground viewpoint, or a person interested in tennis who is indifferent or undecided on the matter.

I don’t have any amazingly original or dangerously conspiratorial view of the whole matter. I think Djokovic should have gotten the vaccine, and I think the Australian government and Tennis Australia presided over a clown-car-style operation which did not treat Djokovic fairly. I’m not going to ram those views down anyone’s throat, however, because those are such obvious points to make.

What interests me — and what matters on a larger level — is how we, as human beings in human communities, make sense of difficult and contentious situations and use them for the greater good in the future. What do we learn from these episodes? What do we learn from personal failures and systemic imperfections in resolving or litigating problems?

We need to have that conversation. We need to build that conversation.

People’s emotions are raw from this prolonged drama. I’m sure Djokovic fans feel bitterly disappointed, profoundly outraged, and — for some of them (though not necessarily a majority) — deeply betrayed by the Australian government.

Does this make Djokovic a victim? Others can have that debate. What we can say for sure is that a lot of people are hurt by this, or at least, they feel pain, which is itself a manifestation of hurt. Given the prevalance of pain, people might not be ready to have the conversations we need to have … but when the wounds begin to heal, and time softens the blow of this wrenching and bruising episode, this conversation will need to unfold.

Here is my attempt to start this conversation.

Whatever else you might think of Novak Djokovic’s view of vaccination or getting vaccinated, the worst possible thing which can happen — for tennis and for human communities — is for all of this to not escape or transcend vaccine politics.

Getting the vaccine — being pro- or anti-vax — has been such a point of contention in many countries and communities. The simple fact of being pro- or anti-vax has marked many public figures as heroes or villains to a lot of people around the world.

The key point is that simply being pro- or anti-vax is not heroism (or villainy). Using one’s position as a cudgel or as a tool for empowerment is the much bigger key… and this is where Djokovic and tennis can take this situation if they want to.

Kyrie Irving of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets has outed himself as a vaccine skeptic. Many people will disagree with that stance, but this is where things get complicated: Kyrie Irving has made some public stances on various social justice issues. He is part of an NBA community in which Blacks comprise the overwhelming majority of competing players. The NBA community of players briefly interrupted their playoff season in 2020 after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Barack Obama talked to LeBron James and a few NBA players about how to handle “Black Lives Matter”-oriented protests. The result was that the NBA players’ very brief strike didn’t last. It lasted for about 24-48 hours, nothing more. The 2020 playoff schedule was knocked back only a few days.

The NBA players’ union chose not to make a longer, more persistent form of protest.

Before vaccine mandates became a central point of contention in American politics and, more specifically, the politics of labor and the workplace, the NBA faced a complex issue when the 2021 season began. The 2020 playoffs ended in October. Management and the players negotiated over when to start the season. The players’ union allowed the season to begin on December 22, 2020, meaning that the two teams which played in the 2020 NBA Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat, had just one and a half months before beginning preparations for the 2021 season.

In that 2021 season, the Lakers and Heat were both hit very hard by injuries, lending ample credence to the views — widely expressed before the 2021 NBA season began — that the December 22 start date endangered players and did not promote their safety. Experts widely felt the players’ union did not represent the interests of players, at least not to the extent the situation required.

Kyrie Irving expressed dissatisfaction, but he didn’t launch a significant effort to change the labor dynamics of the NBA. That brings me back to Djokovic, the sport of tennis, and the conversation which will help us gain something meaningful out of these past two rotten, awful, ugly weeks.

We all have an opinion on getting the vaccine and on vaccine mandates, as noted above. I have an opinion, too … but what matters is not my opinion or yours. What matters is that communities of human beings, organized in workplaces, arrive at arrangements they can live with.

The pandemic has changed how we work (much more from home). It has created intense controversies about in-person schooling and the mental health of children. The pandemic has caused a lot of people to rethink how they live their lives and how they value certain priorities. The workplace is one of the biggest areas affected by the pandemic.

Conservatives in the United States have long viewed private corporations and the bosses who lead them as job creators and wise titans of industry. The freedom to run a business without much government regulation has been a core conservative principle in the United States for many decades.

The pandemic, however, has created a situation in which the company — the boss, the CEO — has in many cases been the source or author of a vaccine mandate, in which all employees need to get the vaccine or will be fired. Pandemic politics has created workplace situations in which bosses, usually on the side of maximizing liberty and minimizing regulatory restraints on their activity, have begun to adopt more restrictions and regulations through the prism of vaccines and requiring workers to submit to various situation-specific demands.

This pandemic-based change is creating a new political cleavage in the United States, where conservatives are no longer seeing large corporations or the people who run them as wise capitalist overseers, but as tyrannical or controlling servants of woke, professional-managerial liberal values.

The labor union, long viewed with skepticism if not hostility by American conservatives, is precisely the thing which can enable workers to negotiate with bosses so that overly restrictive policies such as a vaccine mandate can be modified and softened so that workers have more flexibility, or will get compensation or other protections depending on their decision to get (or not get) vaccinated. Companies requesting employees to be vaccinated is fair. Workers demanding terms and conditions attached to vaccination is also fair.

The labor union can serve the interests of conservative American citizens who think their boss, their company, is being too authoritarian and ultimately unfair. This is creating new political opportunities in American politics and American workplaces.

What Kyrie Irving could do, then, with his anti-vax stance — as undesirable as many people might view that anti-vax stance — is to use it to improve labor rights and worker power in the NBA, and thereby inspire people across the country, both for and against the vaccine, to see vaccination as a labor-rights issue and to organize their own workplaces so that all American workers are comfortable with their work arrangements.

That’s a universal public good which could come from Kyrie Irving IF he sought to use his anti-vax stance.

I’m not mad at Kyrie Irving because he has an anti-vax stance and thinks people deserve more freedom. I’m mad at Kyrie because he stops at the door of vaccine politics without seeing that he can use his stance — as controversial as it is — in other, wider realms to achieve real public, communal goods and advancements.

This brings me back to Djokovic and the community of tennis players.

Actually forging labor reform in tennis is and will be hard, but regardless of what you, or I, or tennis players might personally feel about various issues, we can all agree that no labor or governance reforms will occur in tennis if players don’t finally band together and see the fate or precarity of one person as the fate or precarity of all tennis players. The difficulties of one player represent the difficulties of all.

Djokovic is an exceptional player, of course: 20-time major champion, member of the Big 3, a national figure in Serbia, and so on. Yet, 127 players join him in the draw of a major tournament — 255 if we include the women. Tennis players with various rankings, levels of stature, levels of economic security, and levels of clout all inhabit the locker room at the start of a major. They might have many differences, but they’re in the same profession pursuing the same goals, being subjected to the same conditions.

Workplace conditions.

If various tennis players think Djokovic was treated unfairly, and they don’t see how — or why — forming a labor union is utterly necessary for the future of tennis and for the fair and equitable treatment of players, this sorry episode which has consumed the tennis world will have been in vain.

And that’s really the point, isn’t it? That all of this ISN’T in vain.

It’s up to tennis players to see that, and act on it.

Kyrie Irving and Novak Djokovic can have their vaccine stances. It’s not the biggest deal in the world for me. What matters is that from divergent, even controversial, views comes a larger awareness of needing larger communities, workforces, and global populations to have a say in how they are governed or guided — within nations, within companies, within industries such as tennis and the NBA.

Vaccine politics and immigration politics will always be divisive. Enriching societies and communities can come from these contrasting stances, IF tennis players and other workers in various workplaces are willing to work for larger communal benefits.

That’s where all this energy needs to be redirected, once the raw pain being felt by many people begins to subside enough for us to move on with our lives.

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