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Guest Post: The Ethics of Wimbledon’s Ban on Russian players

Daniel Sokol is a barrister and ethicist in London, UK @DanielSokol9

The decision of the All England Club and the Lawn Tennis Association to ban all Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s Wimbledon and other UK tennis events is unethical, argues Daniel Sokol

Whatever its lawfulness, the decision of the All England Club and LTA to ban players on the sole basis of nationality is morally wrong. In fact, few deny that the decision is unfair to those affected players, whose only fault is to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The Chairman of the All England Club himself, Ian Hewitt, acknowledged that the banned players ‘will suffer for the actions of the leaders of the Russian regime.’ They are, therefore, collateral damage in the cultural war against Russia. The same is true of the many Russian and Belarusian athletes, musicians and other artists who have been banned from performing in events around the world, affecting their incomes, reputation and no doubt their dignity.

Aside from the unfairness to the individuals concerned, the decision contributes to the stigmatisation of Russians and Belarusians. These individuals risk becoming tainted by association, like the citizens of Japanese descent after the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 who were treated appallingly by the US government. As a society, we must be on the lookout for signs of this unpleasant tendency, particularly in times of war, to demonise others by association. The All England Club and LTA’s decision is one such sign and sets a worrying precedent for other organisations to adopt the same discriminatory stance.

One journalist, writing in the Globe and Mail on Wednesday, supported Wimbledon’s ban as the players ‘travel the world carrying an enormous megaphone, earning outrageous amounts of money’ and ‘representing a homicidal regime that the rest of us will probably be at war with in five years’. However, most professional players have no metaphorical megaphone. They simply play tennis. If they are interviewed in tournaments, it is generally about tennis. It is far-fetched to claim that their mere participation reflects an endorsement or tolerance of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While some of the highest-ranking players earn vast sums, most tennis players on the professional circuit earn little. Research by economists in 2018 concluded that ‘around 80% of professional tennis players earn close to nothing’.

Finally, professional tennis players do not represent a political regime and would be mightily surprised, and possibly upset, if told otherwise. Most people cannot choose their nationality. Tennis players on the professional circuit live a nomadic lifestyle, travelling from tournament to tournament and often residing in locations other than their place of birth. Victoria Azarenka, the Belarusian former world no.1, left Belarus for the United States when she was just 15. With the exception of certain events like the Davis Cup, tennis players – unlike footballers – play for themselves rather than ‘Team Russia’ or ‘Team Belarus’, collecting their own ranking points and prize money.

If the national flag is the problem, then the solution is to require players to compete under a neutral flag rather than to ban them from tournaments.

If the unfairness and stigmatisation are to be permitted, there must be a strong justification. There is not. The All England Club has argued that ‘it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with the Championships’. There is no explanation of what those benefits are. Is it the prestige to the nation or the taxes received from the prize money? If so, these benefits are not sufficient to outweigh the inherent injustice of banning innocent players from participation. It is merely adding yet another injustice to the many caused by the conflict and causing further division, including within the sport. The Association of Tennis Players and Women’s Tennis Association have already expressed strong disapproval of the All England Club and LTA’s decision.

Those who support the ban often invoke abstract reasons, such as sending messages of disapprobation to Moscow or limiting Russia’s global influence, but its consequences are very real for the affected athletes or artists, whose (usually short) careers and livelihoods may suffer. The motive is laudable but the method wrong, probably ineffective and possibly counter-productive by generating feelings of injustice among Russians and Belarusians.

It is not inconsistent to decry the war in Ukraine while challenging the ethics of effectively punishing, through bans, Russians and Belarusians who may have nothing to do with Moscow’s decision to invade Ukraine. There are better, more effective ways to condemn the war and help the besieged Ukrainians. John Millman, the Australian tennis professional, was surely right when he suggested that ‘Ukraine would be better served if Wimbledon gave their entire profits to support aid rather than ban the Russian and Belarus players.’


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1 Comment on this post

  1. Russian Federation invaded Ukraine. That is bad. More bad is that together with this tragic event the politics invaded our life.

    But the more the politics will influence the innocent individuals and their indvidual fates, the more ideology, violence and unhappiness will be in our society.

    Unfortunately honourable All England Club did not considered this. The chairman is completely blind.

    We return to 1984 when the authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe did not allow their sportmen to participate in Los Angeles
    Olympic games.

    All England club has today the same code as these bolshevik states. Sorry….

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