For the most ambitious Pentecostals, politics and theology, one’s profession and one’s professed beliefs, are and should be intertwined. Court’s protestation to Le Grand that her involvement in politics (through opposing same-sex marriage) and the subsequent controversy “should [not] be brought into my tennis career”, which was “a different phase of my life”, was, to put it kindly, disingenuous.
Victory Life loves to remind people that its pastor is THE Margaret Court. The church’s good-works wing, previously called Victory Life Community Services, has been renamed Margaret Court Community Outreach (MCCO) and is branded by a logo featuring Court playing tennis.
Court’s autobiography, the story of “the greatest tennis player of all time”, is available for direct sale through Victory Life. As Senior Minister of Victory Life, Court’s presentation on her website speaks of her 62 grand slam titles and blends her awards (an honorary doctorate from Oral Roberts University, an MBE and an AO) without distinguishing the religious from the sporting.
Court uses her tennis fame to promote her church, as she is entitled to do.
The church is not only about people standing and singing with closed eyes and raised arms, nor is its mission purely to separate the blissed-out from their hard-earned. The MCCO claims to distribute food to 550 families and individuals each week, providing 3,000 meals, or 22 tonnes of food, to needy people in the Perth area. If the world were a simpler place and you could single out these good works, could you find another ex-sports star so deserving of celebration? Certainly the MCCO’s sponsors are supportive. Among them are Coca-Cola Amatil, Steggles and Lion, big corporations with the standard corporate philosophies of inclusion, who might not like to be seen with a homophobe but can throw themselves behind a vital charity.
If those who oppose Court’s views on sexuality were to boycott Coca-Cola Amatil, Lion or perhaps the Sydney Roosters’ jersey sponsor Steggles, then perhaps they could apply leverage in the same way the Qantas name was used to lever Israel Folau out of rugby union. But then such boycotts are being examined at political level by our Pentecostal PM. Court is no simpleton.
What is less complicated is the very clear belief among Court, many evangelicals and some Christians more widely, that they are a persecuted minority. When the Prime Minister’s Office called for public submissions to its Expert Panel on Religious Freedom in 2017, Court was quick to write in.
In her submission, she wrote: “I am deeply concerned that, as a nation, we are forsaking foundational truths and the blessings that have made Australia great.”
Even without the Trumpist turn of phrase, this was already beginning to sound like a political tract before Court continued: “I believe it is our duty … to stand in the public arena and be a voice of wisdom and the heart of God. We are to be salt and light in all spheres of life and Christianity was never meant only for Sundays.”
It is manifest that Court belongs among those who do not separate religion from public life and furthermore that they perceive their greatest threat as the censoring forces of political correctness. To the then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Court wrote: “I have the upmost (sic) confidence that God will grace you with wisdom and discernment in this great endeavour to ensure that Christianity will not be silenced or stifled in Australia.”
Which brings us to poor old Tennis Australia, the meat in this particular sandwich. Court seems to think that she is being “silenced or stifled” in at least two ways. One is the lobby (which has not held sway) to take her name off the arena at Flinders Park. The other is TA’s apparent reluctance to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her grand slam with as much fanfare as Rod Laver received.
I’m not sure if either of these qualifies as “silencing” or “stifling”, but those who want to see themselves as persecuted won’t need much of an excuse.
Certainly the language of those who mistake an online sewer for a personal “free speech platform”, and threaten violence or abuse upon Court and her fellow-travellers, feed the persecution complex and rapidly turn it into a mania. But TA itself doesn’t appear to be “silencing” or “stifling” Margaret Court so much as hoping it all goes away.
Would TA really be abetting homophobia if it gave Margaret Court an air ticket (Emirates, I think, not Qantas or Virgin) and a pro forma recognition? Now that Court has raised it, TA is no longer able to hide. It must choose whether to celebrate her or not celebrate her and both will lead to outrage.
But for the bigger picture, there are better ways to make the point against Court than to strip her of ceremonial doodads. (Getting the law changed was one. Game, set, match.) It is also a question of tactics and Court, for all her matriarchal airs, is as decisive a tactician in the culture wars as she was on the tennis court. She has served up a juicy-looking lob to the other side, and in their excitement they have rushed up and smashed it over the baseline, getting all the pleasure of a big whack but losing the point. The movement to which Court belongs thrives and solidifies on the feeling that it is persecuted. Cancel culture gives them precisely what they want.
In the meantime, Court cannot honestly claim that her tennis achievements live in a separate world from her religious business. They work together for her. And if the Arena should continue to bear her name, as both a tennis hero and a religious minister, it bears the whole indivisible mess. Does it send a message of intolerance? As much as the message that would be sent by erasure. Intolerance lies on both sides of the argument. But Court is not a criminal; this is not the Rolf Harris Arena. Nor is she, like Folau, a current player whose dedication to winning might be compromised by a dedication to higher things. She is merely a retired tennis great and the leader of a new kind of church.
All up, it gives one more reason to keep on cheering for Ash Barty. Can she please win more major titles so that some time in the not-too-distant future, when the naming of certain facilities needs freshening up, the Margaret Court Court has a ready-made replacement? Tennis Australia can hardly wait.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.