The world is burning, and athletes are silent

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Australia is on fire. Like California in the United States, bush fires during the hotter months are a common occurrence, but climate change has fanned those flames, and they just keep burning. Huge swaths of lands are now devastated and dead, as is whatever lived there, be they plants, insects, marsupial, or even people. It’s horrifying on a number of levels, and the kind of thing that isn’t going to just get better by ignoring it or sending well wishes.

It’s through this lens that you need to read Howard Bryant’s latest at ESPN, in which he takes tennis players — and athletes in general — to task for the way they handle political crises:

Appropriate or not, the narrative has been typecast to return us to normalcy, with athletes’ on-field strength infusing us, teams and players arm-in-arm with law enforcement, mayors and governors. They are the ambassadors whose very presence tells you we will rebuild, that everything will be all right.

While the fires decimate the country and players voice their concerns that conditions are unsafe and perhaps the tournament should be postponed, Tennis Australia, the governing body of the sport in the country, has said little of substance to address the effects of the fires on player safety, or the ethics and morality of hosting a multimillion-dollar spectacle as the country literally burns. Health officials have graded the air quality as “unhealthy.” Even through the smoke, it appears the show must go on.

The superstars, knowing their place despite the growing voices of dissent within their own ranks, assured tennis authorities and the public at large they could still be counted on, that they would trust authority instead of challenge it.

It’s that act of “knowing their place” and refusing to challenge authority, that Bryant wants to focus on. Athletes attempt to be “simultaneously impactful and inoffensive,” with sports as a whole “positioning its teams, leagues and athletes as neutral, nonpartisan humanitarians.” Do you need some relief money after a disaster? Athletes can provide that! Do you want someone to speak out on some of the causes of the disaster or catastrophe, especially when they’ve been created by humanity? Or maybe speak out before there is a disaster, when it can still be avoided somehow? Many athletes can’t help you there, lest they appear as anything besides benevolent-but-neutral observers with sizable bank accounts they’re open to sharing if the occasion calls for it.

Bryant is tired of this, and he’s not alone — you’re reading me on this for a reason, you know:

When they raise money, athletes can appear engaged with everyday people and their caring for the planet. They can maintain their historical place in the narrative as aiding in the healing, the force for good without being offensive. They can be seen as doing something. They can be counted on, also, to be allies for the needs of elected officials rather than as critics who call them out. But as the stakes rise, their assigned position feels less and less the correct one.

Not every tennis player in the Australian Open has been silent, with Bryant citing Brayden Schnur on the issue. Schnur, who is ranked 103 on the Tour, has been critical of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two megastars in the tennis world who, like they were expected to as athletes, handed over some money to help with the fires, but are committed to playing in the tournament despite the unsafe conditions and again, the fact that Australia is literally just on fire: if they were to speak up on the issues, it would be paid attention to much more than if Schnur did, given their differing statuses.

This is where Bryant goes for the jugular, and it’s something to think about long after you close this window. Both for athletes, and, well, everyone, because we’re all going to be at the mercy of the planet in the same way Australia currently is. And if not you specifically, then at least whichever children or grandchildren or friends you leave behind:

The wound is larger than the bandage, and despite the force for good narrative, there is something unethical about arriving only after the village has been destroyed.

By focusing on raising money after disasters have struck while being silent before, the players are indirectly taking the easy way out — appearing to be part of the solution while protecting their lane of being inoffensive. For some, it is a sly mechanism to give to the humanitarian cause because, in some cases, their personal politics are contributing to the global catastrophe… while sports are applauded by the public and positioned as a force for good, some players as well as some league officials and team owners prominently favor politicians whose policies contribute to rising temperatures and threaten the planet. Sports in turn receive an odd and undeserved dispensation, celebrated for their post-disaster contributions while also, in many cases, killing the planet at the ballot box. It is also mitigated by the paternalistic reality of the equation: Players are applauded for raising money for disaster relief but many don’t dare lend their voices to preventing one.

A tennis union, as Bryant later mentions, would help here somewhat, especially giving power and voice to the players who aren’t at the Nadal or Federer or Serena Williams level. However, that is also not a cure-all on its own: look how many of the major sports do have unions, and then consider the climate-related silence you’ve heard from those spaces. Maybe things would be a little different here, since the players would be able to, in essence, strike against the idea of playing in Australia in unsafe conditions while it’s on fire. But what would they do while Australia remained on fire and they’re playing elsewhere? Maybe it’s cynical of me to think so, but I imagine it would be business as usual.

Remember last spring, when the Padres brought in an exterminator for bees in their stadium instead of calling on a service that would safely remove the endangered insects and relocate them? And how not a single MLB player, Padre or otherwise, spoke up on this issue? Whether it was because they don’t know why it’s horrid, don’t care, or are afraid to speak up, it’s a problem whether you’re talking about murdering a large number of bees with direct action or watching Australia burn due to civilization’s inaction. Or, more truthfully, due to civilization’s terrible, destructive actions.

Sports teams require huge amounts of land cleared for new stadiums that are constantly built. Domed stadiums require huge amounts of environment-ruining air conditioning — the Texas Rangers’ new stadium will no longer be open-air, as it’s too hot to play baseball in Arlington in the summer. Surely, building a stadium where the AC is always on will help it get cooler out in the long run. Flying has an enormous environmental footprint: teams fly constantly to get to their next destination. Many players in many sports, as you already knew before Bryant referenced it, are conservatives who might not even believe in climate change, and vote against the interests of the planet and its people every year. Think of how much energy it takes to keep a hockey rink frozen anywhere, never mind in, say, Florida, or what it does to the environment to clear acres and acres of land of its trees, plants, and ecosystem in order to put in parking lots and a stadium the city will replace in 20 years when some billionaire holds the populace hostage with threats of moving if they can’t get a more modern palace to play in. And everyone just goes along with it: there’s too much money and prestige to be lost by questioning even for a moment what this is all doing to the world.

Sports have been political throughout their existence, and its athletes have a storied history of making sure they’re inserted into the discourse, their stances proudly known. For a variety of reasons, ones Bryant mentions and others to be discussed at length on their own, that’s not how things work anymore, and now Australia is on fire. At least there will be some tennis there, though, to help distract us from the terrors of reality, terrors that will consume us and our world should we continue to ignore them as we have been.

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