Ethics Quiz: Martina Navratilova’s “Open Letter”

Court the tennis icon (right); Court the anti-gay rights advocate (left)

Martina Navratilova, the 18-time tennis Grand Slam champion, wrote an “open letter”  to the Margaret Court Arena at Melbourne Park (Do arenas read letters? I did not know that!) as the Australian Open, always played there, looms in January. Navratilova, a feminist and gay rights activists, argued for removing Court’s name from the venue, despite her undeniable status as a ground-breaking female tennis star, because of Court’s recent statements  hostile to gay marriage, lesbians, and the transgendered.

In the letter, which is as diplomatic and mild as such a letter could possibly be (and Martina has always been an excellent writer), Navratilova says that her position is not based on Court’s “headline-grabbing comments in 1990 when she said I was a bad role model because I was a lesbian.” However, Navratilova focused on Court’s “statements she made in the ’70s about apartheid in South Africa,” in which she opined that ” South Africa dealt with the “situation” (meaning people of colour) much better than anywhere else in the world, particularly the US,”  and, more recently, her anti-gay, anti-trans positions. The 74-year-old  Court had said she would boycott Qantas airline “where possible” in response to its support of same-sex marriage, saying, “I believe in marriage as a union between a man and a woman as stated in the Bible.” This week, interviewed on  a Christian radio station, Court said “tennis is full of lesbians” and that older players lure younger ones into gay sex. Court also said that transgender children are the work of “the devil.”

Concludes Martina’s open letter to the arena:

It is now clear exactly who Court is: an amazing tennis player, and a racist and a homophobe. Her vitriol is not just an opinion. She is actively trying to keep LGBT people from getting equal rights (note to Court: we are human beings, too). She is demonising trans kids and trans adults everywhere….How much blood will be on Margaret’s hands because kids will continue to get beaten for being different? This is not OK. Too many will die by suicide because of this kind of intolerance, this kind of bashing and yes, this kind of bullying. This is not OK.

We celebrate free speech, but that doesn’t mean it is free of consequences – not punishment, but consequences. We should not be celebrating this kind of behaviour, this kind of philosophy. The platform people like Margaret Court use needs to be made smaller, not bigger.

Which is why I think it’s time to change your name.

This is as well-argued a case for one side of the issue as anyone could make.

Here’s the other side: Margaret Court’s name was placed on the arena because she was a great tennis player and a pioneer in her sport, not to honor her political and social views. She still was a great tennis player. That hasn’t changed.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Do Margaret Court’s political views and anti-LGTBQ statements create an ethical obligation to remove her name from Margaret Court Arena?

No matter what ethics principles we agree on, you can guarantee that a set of circumstances will be randomly generated in the chaos of human existence that will make them hard to apply. Such is the case here.

I think I know where I stand on this, but rather than state it now, let me lay out some ten other positions and principles from other dilemmas, controversies and posts.

1. Major public figures honored in their time by the public of the time based on the values of that time should not be subject to retroactive withdrawal of the honors based on changing societal values or historical evaluations. This is airbrushing history.

2. Discoveries that a previous honor was based on mistakes or misrepresentations and were not deserved honors at the time they were made can justify retracting the honor.

3. Honors for specific accomplishments should not be subject to retraction for conduct in an entirely different area. Thus Bill Cosby’s well-earned honors for his entertainment career should not be forfeited by his personal misconduct.

4. The debt an institution or enterprise owes to its founders or crucial figures in its founding, advancement, prestige, development and accomplishments are not cancelled by subsequent misconduct or discovered misconduct.

5. An honor for an individual’s specific achievements in one area should not be regarded as endorsement or approval for every aspect of the individual’s life.

6. Those whose names have been associated with  institutions, organizations or enterprises have an ethical duty not to abuse that position and honor by embarrassing or bringing controversy to the institutions, organizations or enterprises to their detriment.

7. A religion’s position that marriage is between a man and a woman should be respected and not treated as per se bigotry, but a religious view of marriage does not and cannot govern the qualifications for civil marriages.

8. Withholding recognition and honors from accomplished and important individuals based on non-conforming political, social and religious beliefs is a slippery slope that easily becomes political oppression and the chilling of speech.

9. Institutions, organizations and enterprises have a right as well as an obligation to protect themselves from serious or permanent harm due to their association with individuals whose words or conduct threaten their standing with the public, the community or the culture.

10. No rule, formula or principle works every time (The Ethics Incompleteness Principle)



Pointer: Curmie

Source: Raw Story

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts, and seek written permission when appropriate. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution, credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

21 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: Martina Navratilova’s “Open Letter”

  1. “Do Margaret Court’s political views and anti-LGTBQ statements create an ethical obligation to remove her name from Margaret Court Arena?”

    I think this one comes down to how one defines for themself what an “ethical obligation” is with an real emphasis on the word “obligation”.

    My answer to the question is, no.

  2. Names on buildings change all the time, and that’s fine. I remember when my airport was NOT called Ronald Reagan National Airport, but just National or DCA.

    No one is obligated to take the name down, but if they want to rename the Court, that is fine by me.

  3. Mr. Marshall:

    “The debt an institution or enterprise owes to its founders or crucial figures in its founding, advancement, prestige, development and accomplishments are not cancelled by subsequent misconduct or discovered misconduct.”

    I’m not sure I disagree, but the word “owes” gives me pause in such a context. After all, the dead are just that, dead. No amount of honor, homage, or respect is going to make them any less so, or or make the lives they lead any more or less worthy. Moreover, even if the present time is indebted to the actions they took, they’re all beyond repayment at this point.

    Thus, to whom is the debt paid? Their memory (can memories inherit debt)? Their survivors (what if they don’t have any and, even if they do, do children deserve praise for the actions of their parents)? And when is such a debt ultimately repaid? Robert E. Lee was only President of Washington (and Lee) College for 5 years before his death and his lasting contributions to the institution (if any) are an open question. Does the institution or posterity owe him a permanent shrine there?

    Your points regarding historical airbrushing make complete sense — that is how we lose a sense of where we came from and, ultimately, where we’re going; however, arguing the living are obligated to honor or respect the dead takes it to an almost metaphysical dimension. Ken Burns once said that history is little more than a series of questions we ask of the past — so maybe we’re not forgetting, we’re just asking different questions (or something).

    Anyways, I welcome your thoughts.

      • Zoltar,

        Have you ever conflated cheese to crackers? The resulting foodstuff is quite often devine.

        Mr. Marshall,

        Thank you for your thoughtful, reasoned response. Your points are well taken.

    • I know this is not a majority opinion, but we due owe debts to the dead when we have benefited from their lives and works.I write about this often: the duty to remember, the duty to honor. Every institution’s past is part of its identity and strength. Organizational management and building is one of my fields—Charles Green here even more so—and I have learned that it is dangerous and unhealthy to become estranged from one’s roots. Legacies and reputations continue past lifetimes. It’s Golden Rule issue, as well as crucial to remembering who we are, where we came from, who got us here, and what we have learned so far.

  4. I think in a lot of ways people can be…. not forgiven, perhaps, but something akin to it… The outrage can be at least partly mitigated by looking at the time and environment in which things are said.

    For example, Cosby… His transgressions were mostly in the 80’s, when women were treated poorly, and rape was… not condoned, but taken significantly less seriously than today. Cosby’s acts, I think, would be seen through a different light if they had happened today. This isn’t to say that what Cosby did was acceptable, it obviously wasn’t, but it is to say that certain acts change contextually through time.

    Slavery is probably the most obvious and extreme example. At the time of America’s founding, slavery was legal, relatively common, and normalised. Now, owning another person is anathema to today’s sensibilities, and rightly so, but should we view colonial-era slave owners through the same lense as someone participating in slavery today, when it is not legal, common, or normalised? I don’t think that’s fair. We can view slavery as a blight on the records of otherwise principled people, and hold those people up for their principles.

    I think Court is different from the colonials because she’s alive, and I think Court is different from Cosby because she’s still practising (although I realise that arguement has holes). You can’t blame old-timey misconceptions for current era acts.

    And to tie this all up in a bow…. I think that we erect statues and name buildings for a myriad of different reasons, but when it comes to athletes, it’s generally because those people we choose to honour are iconic, and aspirational. Michael Phelps, holder of 23 Olympic gold medals (and some silver and bronze, but really, who cares?), who singlehandedly won enough Gold Medals in the 2008 summer Olympics that were he an independant nation, he would have placed 10th on the international rankings, will probably never have buildings named after him because he smoked some pot. What message is the sport sending to children when the icons they are holding up are currently saying the things that Court does?

    I’d change the name.

  5. Court also said that transgender children are the work of “the devil.”

    Without knowing much about this or about either of the people, I can be reasonably sure that if I dig for the full context of this, I’d find out that this is a very dishonest representation of whatever was said by Court. After a certain point one recognizes the speech patterns inherent in calumnity.

        • “That’s all the devil; but that’s what Hitler did and that’s what communism did – got the minds of the children. There’s a plot in our nation, and other nations to get the minds of the children.”

          This is the actual quote, and in context Court, shockingly, does not believe that the devil created transgender children. She believes that parents and a sexually perverted culture are to blame. Which is not only reasonable but probably spot on.

          (As for lesbians seducing young tennis players, if it’s true, is it just wrong for anyone to talk about it? Is lesbian tennis player sex club like Fight Club?)

          I assume that, had she tried, Martina COULD have made a pretty good case, without lying, for sending Court down the memory hole. But she felt the need to exaggerate and lie.

          • Honestly, I don’t see the difference. She’s demonizing transgendered kids and the adults that support them. The sentence mentions the devil, communism, Hitler and a multi-national plot—isn’t that enough to fairly call FOUL?

            The comments about lesbians in tennis should have been left out of the letter, but I understand why Martina would object. The fact is that most women’s sports have a disproportionate number of gays. Do gay women sometimes hit on young attractive athletes who might not be gay? i assume they do. i assume many of the hittees have enough maturity to say no, yes, or “sure, what the heck, I’m game!” as they wish.

      • They really weren’t; as Jack said, there’s really no difference there.

        I’ll add that you are trying to manufacture a difference because you share Court’s transphobic views.

  6. I think it should be changed, mostly due to #6. Other monuments that are proposed or have been brought down for sins outside living memory should have slightly different criteria. They honestly lived in a different era and it is profoundly unfair to judge them by today’s standard. Court was an exemplar of that earlier era, but not as good an inspiration for today. Even if she dislikes or disapproves of lesbians, grouping them with Hitler or the devil is overkill and not convincing.

  7. On this basis, let’s drop all the Founders from the South from history. Let’s rename the Nobel Prize for someone who did not make billions from dynamite. Let’s rename all the major foundations who have done an amazing amount of good over the decades because they were founded out of guilt by the Gilded Age Robber Barons.

    In fact, let’s not give any awards to anyone, or name any edifice or university for anyone as well. Let’s just number them, because someone, somewhere, will find a part of the honorees’ pasts, attitudes, or facial tics which — in these oh so modern times — would make every honoreee less than perfect — in thought and deed for their entire lifetimes. Kiss all the heroes goodbye. Except perhaps Martina herself, who seems to consider herself quite perfect.

  8. It was only in 2003 that Show Court One at the sports and entertainment complex Melbourne Park was renamed the Margaret Court Arena.

    A year later, the government of the day also redefined the term “marriage” to void the existing civil marriages of Intersex Australians and also prevent same sex marriage, which the courts were thought likely to permit in future on the same grounds as the recent US SCOTUS decision.

      • They were mainstream at the time, yes. The change to redefine marriage had broad bipartisan support, from both the socially conservative Catholic Left and the mostly more socially liberal Right who were now getting support from groups like Hillsong in exchange for changing their views. There was no debate on it.

        These days, not so much, with 70% popular support in Australia for reversing the 2004 redefinition, and 55% in explicit support of same sex marriage rather than “yes, whatever, don’t care”. Far less support for Apartheid apologists like Dr Court too (Honorary degree from Oral Roberts Uni in the US).

        The Catholic church has lost much of its moral authority due to the ongoing inquiries revealing habitual and widespread child abuse, and coverups – something Hillsong also suffers from, but have been better at PR.

        The current government though is adamant that there will be no change as long as they’re in power.

      • It wasn’t a case of Dr Court being honored despite her views: she was honored by the government of the day at least partly because of them.

        Now those views are no longer as fashionable, at least amongst the Left.

        Dr Court’s ministry also does a great deal of charitable work amongst the destitute. Not for her a mansion and private jets, the money goes to the poor – and sympathetic organisations. But mostly to the poor. As long as they’re not gay or black.

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