Team Talk by Chris Stafford

Courting Conflict: When Sport & Religion Collide

Billie-Jean King & Margaret Court, courting conflict, religion
Billie-Jean King & Margaret Court

Margaret Court and Billie-Jean King are still on opposite sides of the court

by Chris Stafford

With the tennis Grand Slam season in full swing now and fans avidly following their heroes, I enjoy reflecting on the legends of the sport that had me hooked in my youth. Billie-Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Yvonne Goolagong, Gabriela Sabatini and yes, Margaret Court. I would follow every tournament and later reveled at the chance to attend Eastbourne and Wimbledon to be able to study their game more closely and see them in the flesh. I was a big tennis fan back then as I endeavored to improve my game. These women were not only great players but also represented so much for female athletes, breaking down barriers to equality, showing their diversity, and proudly fighting for future generations to have opportunities and access that were not available to them when they began their illustrious careers. They made history, and we will be forever grateful for what they achieved in the name of women’s sport.

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I loved watching those iconic battles between Billie-Jean and Margaret Court and I was often torn between who I was supporting because both played such great tennis of course, each with their distinct styles. But off the court they each represented different values and distinct purposes in their life’s work. What Billie Jean has done for women’s sport is well established but the path that Margaret Court took is in sharp contrast.

As a gay woman and someone who made sport their life and livelihood, I have had my struggles like so many and these sportswomen represented everything I admired as I watched them play

Court grew up as a Roman Catholic and in the early 90’s became a Pentecostal Christian Minister.  She has long been a critic of gay rights but her latest outbursts have taken her arguments too far for many and there are calls for her name to be removed from the arena that bears her name at the home of the Australian Open in Melbourne Park. When Show Court One was named after her in 2003 it was to recognize a legend in the sport who won every grand slam which included 62 of her 79 singles titles, making history for the women’s game and for Australian tennis.

Margaret Court Arena_

When she recently announced that she would be boycotting the Australian national airline Quantas because of its policy on supporting same-sex marriage, and then adding further fuel to the fire by claiming that “when she played professional tennis, lesbian players on the tour would try to sway younger players,” it was a step too far in preaching her beliefs. That she has stated that embracing homosexuality would cause young people to “destroy their lives,” and “homosexuality is a lust for the flesh, so is adultery, fornication,” is offensive enough but imagine the effect that hearing this would have, particularly on young people who may be struggling with their sexual identity.

We are all entitled to our beliefs but when public figures use their pulpit to preach in public with such vitriol against minority groups they create further division. And for what purpose other than to exploit their own platform and gather their flock in the name of religion.

As a gay woman and someone who made sport their life and livelihood, I have had my struggles like so many and these sportswomen represented everything I admired as I watched them play. So imagine my dismay and frustration as I watch this conflict unfold between my idols. My respect for them them though is as diverse as was their playing style and their personal values.

Billie Jean King has said that while Court’s views on gays, gender identity and same-sex marriage are “hurtful,” she is not at this point in favor of erasing the name from the stadium, even though she is saddened by her comments. “I still want her to have her name on the court at this point, but I’m disappointed. Because of her tennis, she deserves it…I’ve stood up for her before. So I separate those things.”

While sporting legends deserve their recognition for all they achieved in carving their name in sporting history this will never be eroded, whether or not they have their name emblazoned on an arena. But contrast this with those who have battled to make the world a better place in the name of equality, it’s hard to make a distinction between what they achieved and what they stand for. The reason Court’s name is on a stadium is because of her sport, not her beliefs… offensive as they are to women in sport.

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