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L’Affaire Gimelstob brings up 2 basic reminders about discipline and punishment

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

So, Justin Gimelstob IS now — in essence if not in technical legal fact — guilty of a violent crime for which he has been sentenced and punished by the legal system, albeit very lightly.

A full documentation of this story was provided by Stephanie Myles of Tennis Life late Monday night. Read the report inside the link below:

The ATP Player Council, per Myles, will meet in Rome next month, when Gimelstob will be up for re-election to the council as a player representative. At the time this article was written, the ATP Player Council had not issued a joint statement or resolution or made a joint action to declare that Gimelstob has been or will be immediately removed from his position as player representative.

At the time this article was written, Tennis Channel had not yet decided to permanently remove Gimelstob from its collection of on-air commentators.

Tennis is a global sport. Accordingly, writing for a global tennis audience is an exercise in which one conveys commentary to people in various nations with different legal systems and different structures through which crimes are punished and processed. A tennis audience, spread throughout the world as it is, will arrive at different views on what is — and isn’t — fair.

Will 100 percent of readers agree with the following statement? Maybe not… but I would modestly suggest that most people will agree with it: When a person commits a violent crime, that person should forfeit PRIVILEGES he or she might have previously attained.

Note the word PRIVILEGES, which is different from RIGHTS.

We all have a right to food and water, to housing, to basic health care, to a vote, to the things which keep us alive and identify us as human beings, members of a community into which we are born. Every life possesses intrinsic value. No matter what we do, no matter how we act, we always have certain basic rights.

We have some rights which exist at a higher level than the absolute basics. We have a right to freedom of movement — i.e., to not be detained or confined — but if we murder someone, yes, that right is forfeited. We, by our own criminal conduct, forfeited it. Yet, in an ordered and structured society, killing someone doesn’t mean we automatically should be put to death. Sure, if I shoot at someone in an open field, another person would have every right to shoot at me in order to save the life I was about to end with my own gun. However, if I was captured and disarmed and taken into custody, authoritites would not have the right — morally or legally — to kill me in prison. There are laws and statutes and underlying standards which provide restraints and guidelines for how basic rights are honored even as other rights are forfeited.

Privileges, though, are in a different class relative to rights.

Everyone has — or ought to have — the right to move freely unless forfeited by severely horrible conduct. That isn’t a privilege. That is a basic aspect of daily human existence.

A privilege is a benefit or position or some other standing above a fundamental right.

We don’t all have the basic right to become television commentators. That is a professional achievement earned by being good enough at a given skill and/or being viewed as a valuable property by an employer.

We don’t have a right to employment on a TV network the way we have a right to food, water, and health care. This is a privilege.

Being on a player council of a professional tennis tour is not a right. It is a privilege conferred by professional athletes trying to leverage their position into more benefits and workplace gains.

So, when we talk about “rights,” let us not confuse that term with TV work or professional sports leadership positions. These are privileges, not rights.

Yes, various concepts such as “due process” and “player empowerment” and “worker autonomy” and “local democracy” all have their rightful places in public discourse and the ways in which we try to resolve or negotiate complicated issues among competing interests or stakeholders, but whereas “rights” are to be defended at all costs — certainly at the most basic and elemental level — “privileges” do not and should not enjoy that same complete scope of protection.

Very simply, Justin Gimelstob’s rights are not — and would not be — violated if he was immediately stripped of Player Council representation or Tennis Channel work. Nothing in either of those two moves — if they were made today or later this week — could be seen as unfair to Gimelstob.

Not now. Not after pleading “no contest” to a charge of felony battery.

Point number one about discipline and punishment as it relates to Justin Gimelstob: There is a big difference between rights and privileges, and how we treat them or safeguard them in response to various actions or circumstances.

That point has been very extensively explained.

Point number two is much shorter, flowing from number one.

I have covered American college football for nearly 20 years. Big 19- and 20-year-old men play in front of 90,000 people on Saturdays in September, October, November and through the second week of January for entertainment. Television pays a lot of money to show these games involving Ohio State University and the University of Alabama and Clemson University. It’s very big business. Accordingly, the coaches of these young athletes feel a lot of pressure to win games and preserve what are — at the highest levels of competition, multi-million-dollar salaries.

This has often led to coaches not disciplining players (with appropriate severity) when they commit violent crimes. A foremost example: Tom Osborne of the University of Nebraska not fully kicking Lawrence Phillips off the 1995 team, a story which had a very sad and dark ending decades later. 

In American professional football, it is not a secret that the National Football League (NFL) has often punished the use of prohibited substances more severely than physical assault against other human beings. 

A representative example: The number of games for which football player Josh Gordon has been suspended easily exceeds the number for various NFL players who were caught hitting or otherwise physically abusing other persons.

Either in college football or professional football, the United States has sports organizations which have not put in place systems which can reliably punish acts of physical violence with due severity. Why? Part of the answer is that there is too much money to be made. It is true in other sports as well, but football gets the biggest TV ratings of any American sport. The financial incentives are too high for punishments (suspensions or outright bans of players) to be overly severe.

This is where the second basic reminder about Justin Gimelstob comes into play, shaped by the reminder that his buddies in tennis show no signs of immediately kicking him out of the sport as a member of its system of leadership:

Reminder No. 2: Some decisions cannot be left to leaders or stakeholders. Some matters are important enough that automatic punishments must result from certain kinds of actions.

All sports organizations, not just tennis and/or the ATP Tour or the ITF, need to get on top of this and adjust to the new reality of the 21st century.

Sports organizations have to have bylaws, statutes or codes — whatever relevant term you might prefer or think especially appropriate — which make the punishment a known and expected outcome in advance.

If you commit a violent crime, you’re out. That’s a simply-phrased version of what a bylaw might look like, but it neatly conveys the principle here.

Nonviolent crimes of a severe nature can merit a long suspension but not an outright ban.

Nonviolent crimes of a minor nature can merit a short suspension but nothing more.

People will disagree on the specific parameters, but violent crime against another human being cannot be tolerated to any degree by large entertainment entities.

It’s not a withholding of a right. It’s a withholding of a privilege.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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