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Tennis Won’t Look Justin Gimelstob Squarely In The Face — Though It Must

Matt Zemek

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Susan Mullane - USA TODAY Sports

The file photo provided for us through our contractual relationship with the USA TODAY photo library is an unintended but perfect photo essay. Thank you, Susan Mullane!

There are lots of people in the area, but none of them are looking right into Justin Gimelstob’s eyes. No one is confronting him. No one is shutting him down. He is plotting his next move. The machinations of tennis continue behind the scenes with no apparent check on Gimelstob’s ability to influence the course of the ATP Tour.

All these realities mattered in previous months and weeks, when various groups had a chance to either oust Gimelstob from his position as a player representative on the ATP Board, or at least influence the politics in the room to the point that Gimelstob would feel pressured to relinquish his post.

These realities still matter, but now their importance and weight are magnified by another reality: Gimelstob is about to participate in a significant decision which will affect the leadership of the ATP.

The ugly details are laid out by Simon Briggs of the (Great Britain-based) Telegraph in this report. 

The fact that Gimelstob still occupies his position is bad enough, but what’s worse is that he is one of just three player representatives, with only two needing to vote against current ATP president Chris Kermode to remove him from his position. The issue is not whether Kermode deserves to stay; it is whether Gimelstob should be participating in this decision.

It shouldn’t be a close call.

Remember:

As in other situations — such as whether a person should be a United States Supreme Court Justice — this is not a matter of guilt or innocence. Determining guilt or innocence affects whether a person goes to prison or remains free, or whether a person pays a hefty fine and/or performs community service or doesn’t have to serve any punishment of any kind.

This is not that.

This is whether a person who already has a good-paying job and a substantial amount of income gets to retain a privileged and powerful position.

The idea that the ATP Player Council wanted to let the legal process play out before ousting Gimelstob is not completely ludicrous. Due process is important, and I can understand the idea that “letting the legal system run its course before doing something” is something to honor.

However, this upcoming ATP vote on Kermode’s future as the president of the tour is quite different.

This is a major decision on the leadership of a large sports organization. If this was the NBA, recall Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. His racist comments led to him being banned from the league and forced to sell the Clippers. The NBA could not have one of its leaders erode the league’s integrity and destroy a commitment to widespread fairness and non-discriminatory attitudes. The fact that the NBA has a commissioner — one universally acknowledged authority figure — helped usher Sterling out. Having a strong players’ union with prominent athletes who viewed Sterling’s continued presence in the NBA as unacceptable also helped.

Tennis doesn’t have a commissioner. Tennis doesn’t have player unions. The sport’s lack of structure and centralized authority certainly hurts it in moments such as this. Those points have to be acknowledged.

Yet, even with tennis’s comparative lack of centralized governing mechanisms compared to a team-sport league such as the NBA or NFL or Major League Baseball, there still WERE ways for Gimelstob to be removed from the ATP Board.

The people who had the ability to make needed changes did not make them. As a result, Gimelstob gets to make a hugely important decision while his legal situation remains unresolved. He isn’t guilty, but again, that’s not the point: If you are charged with a crime, especially a violent one, you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere close to any important decision in a highly lucrative and visible global sports organization, or any large organization, or any organization PERIOD, regardless of size.

In no rational world can it make sense to allow Gimelstob to cast his vote as a player rep on the ATP board. The conflicts of interest, the appearances of impropriety, are obvious.

And yet? Crickets from other people in position to do something about it.

This is what is so utterly and completely depressing about tennis as an “organized” sport: Paraphrasing the 1930s-era American humorist Will Rogers, “I am not a member of any organized sport; I am a tennis administrator.”

Phrased differently: Many of us who comment on tennis say that players need to be more empowered and that the players should have more of a voice. Well, the players have a voice here through the player council, and they have not insisted that Gimelstob leave.

This brings up the point that while player empowerment sounds great (and to be clear, it remains something the sport SHOULD preserve and, moreover, increase in the years ahead), a sport also needs to have bylaws, policies and procedures with certain automatic triggers.

One automatic trigger: “If you are charged with a crime, you must forfeit any position of ATP Tour governance, administration or leadership for the next six months or until your legal situation is resolved with a finding of not guilty on all charges brought against you.”

That is merely an example.

That we are in the 21st century, and the ATP doesn’t have such an automatic trigger to ensure that individuals charged with a crime (in this case, a violent crime) cannot serve on the ATP Board and make the important decisions which accompany board membership, is profoundly disappointing.

“Tennis governance” remains one of the world’s foremost oxymorons. As a result, everyone will stand near Justin Gimelstob, but no one will look him in the eye and tell him that he has to go.

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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