Margaret Court was the name in Women’s Tennis. She was the best in the world. She set records. The Australian Open’s Court Arena bears her name. But her game is sadly out of date. She would not have even a teensy-weensy chance against the 100th ranked player today, let alone Serena.
Not. A. Chance.
Bless her heart. I admire her tennis—for the day she played it. Today it’s anachronistic; that is, it’s out of the sequence of time. It’s old, out-of-date, quaint. No one should fault her for that. She was groundbreaking in her day! But her tennis has no place today.
Interestingly, neither would Serena’s tennis have a place in the 1960s. There was no paradigm then in which such a game as Serena’s could have existed! No worldview, if you will, from which today’s top games could have emerged. Today’s tennis would be as out of time in the 60s as Margaret Court’s tennis is today.
If you like women’s gymnastics, watch Nadia Comaneci’s “perfect 10” routines from the 1976 Olympics. You will smile! And of course no one would take any of her hard-earned accolades away from her—but neither are they used to train today’s gymnasts. Even the simple positioning of the uneven bars is far different today.
The fact that the one-time world’s best tennis player is now quaint is as it should be. We only unfold into the time and space in which we live. Those who see beyond their own time we consider prophetic, and they usually get a prophet’s reward—or punishment. Think Galileo and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Another interesting fact on the timeline is that Margaret Court came right after Althea Gibson. Court probably watched Gibson win in the 1950s. Yet those two pros would not have used the same locker room. Blacks and whites had separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, separate societies. And though I don’t know Court’s ideas about black players or race in general—racism was the prevailing worldview of her day. She would have been anachronistic if she hadn’t absorbed the racist views around her.
Context, always context.
Court also lived in a day when LGBTQI people were pretty much under the radar and lacking in any recognition, not to mention rights. If she were homophobic in the 60s or 70s, we should not be surprised; perhaps we would not we even hold her to account for that, given the homophobia of the day.
But we should hold her to account for speaking her homophobic views today.
Why? Because those views hurt LGBTQI people and those who love them. Those views empower bullies to take horrific action against LGBTQI people. Those views empower clergy to oppress, marginalize, and speak publicly against a segment of society. Those views hold society back with outdated, fracturing, divisive ideas. They hinder humanity’s movement toward wholeness and healing.
Court bases her opinion on her theology that God created marriage as between a man and woman. It’s a simple enough theology, and by simple I mean lacking nuance, context, and understanding of overarching themes of scripture. It’s a flat, pedestrian read I have deconstructed before.
But as I read more about Court, I became interested in the human element. Court’s biggest competitor was Billie Jean King, also legendary, also a champ. Court won 24 grand slam singles titles next to King’s 12. Their rivalry (aka hatred) was about as legendary as their game.
In the 1970s were two highly publicized tennis matches: The Battle of the Sexes. This during the push for the Equal Rights Amendment—to grant women the same rights as men. In one of these two matches, Court played Bobby Riggs and lost. In the other match, King played Riggs and won. King won acclaim for destroying this “male chauvinist,” as Riggs was called. What hoopla! I remembered King’s winning face everywhere. I didn’t even remember Court had played.
You think Court’s feelings about King (resentment? envy?) played into her view of King? Of course! These were huge rivals. The fact that Court’s nemesis was a lesbian could hardly help coloring her view of lesbians in general. To think it wouldn’t is to misapprehend human nature.
Players, many lesbian players, are calling for the Margaret Court Stadium to be renamed. Some people are aghast at that thought, of course. After all, the stadium was named based on Court’s achievements as a tennis player, not on her opinions and/or theology. But Court’s magnified voice to speak her opinions and theology comes from the platform of her tennis accomplishments, not the views alone. You can throw a rock and hit a hundred pastors who have the same view but not the same platform.
In any case, Court’s view is not profound or unique—it’s not even educated. It’s just an opinion. But the amplification of her views via her tennis platform makes the tennis relevant, and makes the naming of the stadium relevant. Pushback is appropriate. (We pushed back when Court supported apartheid, as South Africa denied entry to African-American Arthur Ashe.)
Personal views are one thing. Public views that divide and hurt are another.
Court’s old ideas about lesbians would not even be relevant were it not for the platform tennis affords her. I contend they’re still irrelevant. She’s not a lesbian; she doesn’t have their experience. If she were saying that her ideas then were wrong and she sees things differently today, that would be relevant—not because I would then agree with her but because that is the direction society is moving: toward greater acceptance and greater inclusion of those different from us, even—especially—of those we may not understand.
That is the very heart of God and the Gospel.
Give Margaret Court her due. She was once the best tennis player in the world, and she moved the game of women’s tennis far forward.
But beyond that, Court is simply another voice opining about changes she simply does not like or agree with. That’s fine—she doesn’t have to come with us as we move life and humanity forward. But neither should we allow her to grasp and claw to hold the rest of us back.
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