There is no more impotent gesture in sports than erasing the Russian flag.
The IOC tried this trick for years. Russians could come to the Olympics, win at the Olympics, run around fist-pumping about how great they were at the Olympics, but no one could see their flag. As though that would confuse everyone. What gave it away? That they were speaking Russian?
That was back when Russia’s worst crime was cutting out a secret hidey-hole for passing bottles of urine back and forth.
Now that Russia has invaded a sovereign neighbour, gone scorched-earth on civilians and invited Europeans to choose between freezing and going broke, what’s sports’ current answer to this frightening threat to world order? More flag nonsense.
You won’t find a Russian (or Belarusian) flag anywhere near the U.S. Open. Not in the literature, not on TV, not on the website. Just a blank space where a flag should be.
This has the unintended effect of drawing your eye to that spot. It’s easier to spot a Russian’s name on the page than players from any other country.
This is the U.S. Tennis Association’s idea of getting tough – “Get this straight, buddy, you can monkey in our electoral process, you can threaten us with nuclear annihilation and you can send the world economy into a spiral. But you cannot tell us what to put in our official media guides. The line must be drawn somewhere.”
Nowadays, sports loves a cause. Every important contest must go hand-in-hand with righting some historical injustice. It’s a lovely, if transparently self-serving, notion.
But unless they’re fresh off the news cycle’s latest outrage, causes are like fresh fish. They get old fast. Worse, they get boring. People don’t want to be confronted repeatedly by an insoluble problem.
Grinding slowly toward a global conflagration? Oh, man, does this mean I’m going to have to read something? Can’t I just Venmo you a few bucks and we pretend like the war is over?
The people in charge lose their taste for the struggle once the online engagement numbers dip. Six months after everyone in the world was promising that this would not stand, it’s been left to a few players here to keep up the fight.
In one early match, Ukraine’s Marta Kostyuk refused to shake hands postmatch with Belarus’s Victoria Azarenka. Kostyuk took issue with Azarenka’s silence on the war.
“Don’t get me wrong. She’s a great competitor,” Kostyuk told ESPN. “But it has nothing to do with her being a human being.”
Kostyuk is 20 years old and not from here, but I’d still like to write her name in for prime minister. She’s figured out the difference between living in the world as we’d all like it to be and living in the one we’ve got. In the end, all you are is your principles. Kostyuk is doing it out in public when it would be easier to go with the flow.
That’s what the U.S. Open is doing – going with the flow. Sure, it hates war. But if it can do anything substantive about it, that’ll just be a huge hassle. Lots of people will be angry at it. The Open will have to write all sorts of extra news releases. And then someone tweets one wrong thing and it’s chaos. No, war is bad. We all agree on that. But it’s easier this way.
This is corporate North America’s motto when it comes to fighting injustice – what’s easiest?
Easy can be easy to do, or easy to avoid, or easy to get yourself in all sorts of trouble. Don’t think too hard. Do what everyone else is doing – or not doing. That’s the safest way (a companion word to easy).
What Iga Swiatek is doing isn’t hard, but it isn’t easy, either. The Polish world No. 1 continues to wear a Ukrainian flag ribbon on her ballcap. She continues to talk about it, even though she realizes some people are rolling their eyes as she does so.
“I noticed that the memory of the war has diminished,” Swiatek said before a tournament in Poland in July. “Many players took off the ribbons that they put on in February for two or three matches. I find it a bit inconsistent.”
It’s not. It’s entirely consistent with the way most sports activism works. Pump up ‘(fill in space here) justice’ for a month or so, and then jump to the next thing.
Swiatek did the USTA a solid on Thursday and prevented Belarussian Aryna Sabalenka from making the final. That would have been low-key embarrassing.
This is what Wimbledon understood because it is British, and the U.S. Open cannot because it is American. Your enemies won’t play nice just because you’re willing to. Whatever its faults, not-so-ancient history has taught Britain that lesson in ways we over here cannot fully grasp.
It’s not the Russian and Belarusian players’ fault they were born into aggressive autocracies, but they still perform as torchbearers for those places. If they would prefer not to, they have the means to move. All they actually have to do is say a few words. None have chosen to do so.
If you think it’s unfair to ban Russians now, how did you feel about South African cricketers during Apartheid? They also didn’t get to choose where they were born. If we’re talking about relative victimhood, I’m going to side with the people who’ve had their homes blown up rather than the millionaires who travel the world chasing balls around.
What’s become clear here is that while the Ukrainian war is nowhere close to over, the Ukrainian cause as a way to grab eyeballs is. I guess we’ll have to wait until someone drops a nuke and everyone gets scared again. Until then, let’s flip through the paper and see if we can find something else to be so mad as hell about that we aren’t going to take it any more.