A disappointing irony behind Court's comments
In the world of tennis, Margaret Court's voice booms like a megaphone.
A first-ballot Hall of Famer, Court won a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles and 62 majors in an era in which few women were gaining public acclaim for achievement in sports. During her career (1959-77), she played Billie Jean King in five Grand Slam finals, losing only once, and twice defeated up-and-comer Martina Navratilova. Court's home country, Australia, put her image on a stamp in 2003, the same year Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, renamed one of its show courts Margaret Court Arena.
Court's words travel, often beyond tennis. And lately, she has been using her voice for one very specific reason: to let the rest of the world know how she feels about gay rights.
She doesn't approve of gay rights. Not one bit.
"No amount of legislation or political point-scoring can ever take out of the human heart the knowledge that in the beginning God created them male and female and provided each with a unique sexual function to bring forth new life," Court told The West Australian newspaper in an interview last month. "To dismantle this sole definition of marriage and try to legitimize what God calls abominable sexual practices that include sodomy, reveals our ignorance as to the ills that come when society is forced to accept law that violates their very own God-given nature of what is right and what is wrong.
"The fact that the homosexual cry is, 'We can't help it, as we were born this way,' as the cause behind their own personal choice is cause for concern."
The timing of Court's comments, a few weeks before the Australian Open, has sparked international debate. Gay rights activists have returned her volley, calling for supporters to take rainbow-colored flags into the venue that carries her name during the Grand Slam event and launching a Facebook page called "Rainbow Flags Over Margaret Court Arena."
While the U.S. was observing Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, 17-year-old British player Laura Robson played at Margaret Court Arena wearing a rainbow hair band. When asked about it after her first-round loss, Robson said, "I wore it because I believe in equal rights for everyone."
And therein lies the heart of the matter. What makes the Court controversy so striking, and so disappointing, is she is choosing to denounce gay and lesbian civil rights while seemingly ignoring that she was part of the women's rights movement. The platform from which she now speaks was not built solely on the strength of her groundstrokes and grace of her game; credit also belongs to generations of women whose dedication to gender equality elevated the platform for all female athletes. Court competed alongside many of these pioneers, women such as King and Navratilova, two openly gay women whose sweat and determination created privileges, such as equal prize money, for a population long seen as inferior.
Listening to Court is like watching someone climb onto a soap box and start damning the wood beneath their feet.
But her recent statements opposing gay marriage were not her first serve aimed at the gay rights movement. Court, who became a Pentecostal minister in 1991 after converting to the faith during her playing career, has campaigned against equal legal rights for gay couples and has expressed the belief that homosexuality could destroy families.
In a transcript from the Australian Broadcasting Company show "The 7.30 Report," which aired in 2001, Court was quoted as saying, "Jesus Christ loves the homosexual, but he hates the sin, and we love the homosexual and we're there to help them to overcome it." (Wonder what Court's opinions are on this Bible verse from 1 Corinthians 14:34: "Women should be silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but should be submissive, as the law also says.")
The 69-year-old Court also responded to the Australian Open controversy by saying it was "sad" that protestors were using tennis as a political battlefield. But doesn't Court realize her statements carry weight because of her accomplishments on the tennis court? Social politics bleed into the sports landscape, and when they do, the impact feels all the more powerful -- Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their gloved fists at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics; Court curtseying to Bobby Riggs before the first "Battle of the Sexes" match on Mother's Day in 1973; King defeating Riggs in the second "Sexes" clash four months later, a victory that became a rallying cry for the feminist movement.
"I respectfully disagree with Margaret's position on gay marriage," King has said. "We have to commit to eliminating homophobia because everyone is entitled to the same rights, opportunities and protection."
Navratilova called Court's viewpoint "truly frightening, as well as damaging."
King and Navratilova are on one side of the net; Court is on the other. They've been across from each other before, but now it's not about scoring points and raising trophies; it's about equality. Social change never comes without steadfast opposition. But that reality doesn't erase the irony that Court is using a platform gained from one civil rights movement to condemn another.
Kate Fagan is a columnist for espnW. You can follow her on Twitter @katefagan3.