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No vax? No Djokovic

Dr. Amy Bass
Courtesy of Dr. Amy Bass
Dr. Amy Bass

One of the key elements that make a sport a sport is the rules. You want to shoot hoops from a ladder in your backyard? Go for it. Climb right up there and slam that ball down. But keep it in the backyard. Because if you try it in the WNBA, there will be consequences.

That’s what makes sport different from play – the rules. And the world’s number one men’s tennis player is dealing with the consequences of trying to circumvent the rules of the Australian Open.

The breakdown of this month’s saga with Novak Djokovic has been fodder for sports fans and conspiracy theorists alike since he arrived in Melbourne on January 5th but really, our tale begins back in mid-December, when he allegedly, reportedly, likely, and might have tested positive for COVID-19.

Recent news of Djokovic’s positive test baffled the tennis world, as he had spent the days after his test doing interviews and photoshoots. But it turns out that positive test, something that millions of people a day are currently confirming from the comfort of their own home, is, at best, a little shady because, as tennis writer Ben Rothenberg sleuthed out, the QR code that accompanied Djokovic’s positive test scanned as negative.

Or at least it did until Rothenberg tweeted that. Then it scanned as positive and the unvaccinated Djokovic apparently used it to successfully get a medical exemption from Tennis Australia on December 30th.

Upon Djokovic’s arrival in Australia a few days later, border control officers interviewed him. The following day, the Australian government cancelled his visa. Why? Well, because allegedly, reportedly, maybe, and likely his documentation included falsehoods or, at the bare minimum, incongruities in its truthiness and because maybe, reportedly, allegedly Australia does not consider a positive test within the previous six months as grounds for a medical exemption good enough to nail down a visa.

Perhaps especially a possibly suspicious positive test.

The circus continued when an Australian judge rescued Djokovic from his detention facility, where people with some seriously legitimate problems are being held. But as he began to hit some practice balls on the court, the Australian Border Force launched an investigation into whether or not he had presented a false travel declaration before his arrival, which led the immigration minister of Australia to, oh yes, revoke his visa.

Djokovic and his legal team then headed to a different kind of court, the one that doesn’t include winners and aces and lobs, but rather has the power to send the world’s number one men’s tennis player packing.

Which it did.

A lot of gray remains in this saga, and now I wonder which version of events Djokovic is comfortable with. Does he want to be the guy who falsified a positive COVID test in order to get a medical exemption to the Australian Open? The upside here is that he didn’t expose a bunch of journalists during the subsequent interviews and photoshoots, but the downside is, well, pretty obvious. Or does he want to be the guy who actually tested positive and went on to break every single rule of quarantine that we, the ethical and average citizens of the world, know by heart and live by?

At the end of the day, there are no winners here, and I include Australia in that condemnation. The court sent him home for reasons that are odd, at best, and had more to do with his anti-vaccination stance than the fact that his entire case was, well, kind of fishy. Over 90% of Australians are vaccinated – there just aren’t a whole lot of folks that his anti-vax stance stood to inspire. While COVID has, of course, like everywhere, hit the island country hard, Australia’s management of the virus has been better than most. Think on this: Australia has some 25 million folks, and a death toll of 2,670 from COVID. Florida has about 21 million residents, with 63,000 dead and counting.

Ultimately, of course, after quite a few stops and starts, Australia took the stance that was right and just. It didn’t, like the Green Bay Packers, fine and forget. It didn’t, like the Brooklyn Nets, suddenly have a change of heart.

But the onus of responsibility for this spectacle begins and ends with the athlete, because it is his obligation to be eligible according to the rules and right now, those rules include a vaccination against a virus that has leveled life as we know it. Just because he is awesome – and there is no doubt he is awesome – doesn’t mean he gets to skirt the rules. We don’t let him have a third serve when he double faults just because his serve is usually so good, and that would have no impact on public health whatsoever.

So the Australian Open will march on, and whoever lands the coveted men’s singles title should be considered the best, no questions asked, because he did his job and made sure he was eligible before arriving in the stadium.

Oh, and a personal word of advice to Novak: The French parliament has spoken. You have until May to get that jab to make the French Open – no exemptions allowed. Or your next Slam is game over before you even book your ticket.

Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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