A timeline of—and some more thoughts on—the scandal rocking the sports world
As is often true, it’s been a busy week in the world of sports, but one story continues to dominate headlines—in both the sports pages and front pages. We are talking, of course, about Novak Djokovic’s immigration woes ahead of the Australian Open, which is set to begin tomorrow. So, we figured we’d give a quick update on our post from last week, and then share some thoughts about the scandal that we didn’t get to last Sunday. Enjoy!
-Ian and Calder
Novak Djokovic Has Officially Screwed Himself Out of the Australian Open. How’d He Do It? And Why?
Since Novak Djokovic arrived in Melbourne on January 5th, the twists and turns of the scandal surrounding his immigration status have been enough to fill an Agathe Christie novel. So, like Hercule Poirot picking through various stab wounds of different sizes and shapes, we’ll do our best to create some clarity out of the mess.
Here are the facts: on December 17th, Djokovic reportedly tested positive for COVID on a PCR test (more on this “reportedly” in a second). By December 22nd, Djokovic had tested negative. On December 30th, Djokovic received a medical exemption from Tennis Australia, which would allow him to play in the Australian Open based on the fact that he’s had COVID in the past six months. Late on January 5th, Novak arrived in Australia and was interviewed by border control officers. The next day, the Australian Government canceled Novak’s visa, based on both discrepancies in his documentation and the stated policy of Australia that having had COVID within six months is not sufficient for granting a visa. On January 9th, our last Southpaw came out!
The next day, a judge quashed the cancellation, clearing the way for Novak to leave his detention facility and compete in the Open. On January 11th, the Australian Border Force launched a formal investigation into whether Novak had submitted a false travel declaration before arriving. Then, on January 14th, Australia’s immigration minister revoked Djokovic’s visa. And yesterday (or earlier today, depending on how you understand time zones), Djokovic went to court to appeal the decision, and lo and behold, he lost. Early this morning (East Coast time), news broke that Novak was on his way out of Australia.
Whew. An already insane back and forth. But there are a couple of ancillary pieces to this story that we can’t leave out. First of all, for the conspiracy-minded—and count us among their ranks—there’s some question as to whether Djokovic ever had COVID at all. When journalists checked out the documentation he submitted to the Australian government to prove that he had received a positive PCR test, they scanned a QR code included in those documents that at first reported a negative result. Check this out:
After bringing this to the attention of the public, the QR code quickly changed to take people who scan it to a page that says his results were positive.
Additionally, Djokovic later admitted to meeting with journalists for a photoshoot and interview the day after he supposedly received his positive test. Depending on your level of credulity, this is either additional proof that the “positive” result was bullshit or evidence that Djokovic broke every possible quarantining rule by appearing in public while infected with the virus. If in fact it can be proven that Novak or his team did lie about his results, he could receive a three-year ban from competitive tennis.
Now, that scenario is pretty unlikely. Djokovic has the entire Serbian government behind him, and if he is lying, they’ve been helping him do so. (We weren’t exaggerating about our conspiratorial sensibility.) But either way, this scandal has completely overwhelmed any other Australian Open coverage and brought men’s tennis squarely into the international sports (and political) limelight.
We’re of two minds about this whole thing. On the one hand, Novak has gotten what he deserves. He clearly broke the rules—and probably lied more than a few times—so may the full force and fury of the Australian government rain down upon his head.
On the other hand, it seems likely that the Aussies’ decision will provide even more fodder for people around the world who believe that vaccine mandates are an insidious form of liberal authoritarianism designed to punish free-thinking, freedom-loving folks. This is, of course, very dumb, but would-be critics of the Australian government shouldn’t be totally dismissed offhand.
For one thing, the whole process around Novak has been chaotic and more than a little capricious—not exactly the picture of good governance you’d hope for in the middle of a global pandemic. (Assuming, for instance, that Novak was indeed a serious risk to public safety, how many people did he endanger in the course of his prolonged legal battle?) And second, before you jump to the defense of the Australian government, just remember that the “immigration hotel” that they used to house Novak before his trial—the same one which has been accused of feeding its inhabitants moldy and maggot-ridden food—nominally exists to house refugees and asylum seekers. This doesn’t excuse Novak’s behavior, of course, but it should make you think twice before blindly supporting the decisions of the government that is opposing him in the name of protecting the health and wellbeing of its citizens.
On the other hand, allowing Djokovic to stay in Australia would have rewarded him for once again flouting reasonable norms of decency and acceptable behavior. As Jemele Hill wrote in The Atlantic this week,
“Unfortunately, the tennis star is among the famous athletes who’d rather create chaos around them than get their shots. In the United States, the Green Bay Packers indulged their quarterback Aaron Rodgers this season as he misled reporters and fans into thinking he had been vaccinated. Even though the Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving cannot legally play home games because of New York City’s vaccination mandate, the team brought him back anyway.”
This is basically true, although we would suggest that the Djokovic scandal rejects that kind of simple categorization. For one thing, as the scandal seeps beyond the tennis world, a lot of people who have watched very little tennis in their lives are reaching for comparisons to sports with which they are more familiar. The men’s tour in particular is animated much more by long-standing personal animosities and petty grievances than any equivalent American sport. The Djokovic family are masters of this, with his father Srdjan—yes, the same one who recently compared his son to Jesus—going directly after Roger Federer last year in the culminate of a decade of frustration with his son’s rival.
Additionally, while Djokovic has been quiet about his reasoning for refusing to get the vaccination, we’d imagine it’s not exactly the same as Aaron Rodgers’s (listened to too much Joe Rogan and falling in love with Ayn Rand in his 30s after his hippie girlfriend deemed Atlas Shrugged necessary reading material) or Kyrie Irving’s (over-reliance on a belief in deep-state conspiracies, animated partially by an understanding of real history [the Tuskegee Experiment] and mostly by something people yell a lot in Penn Station [the earth is flat]).
We don’t know enough about Serbian nationals to confidently include a similar parenthetical for Novak. We do know, however, that he is a tennis player. And while it might be tempting to graft all of our moral frustrations onto him and his scandal, we’d suggest that people resist that urge. By our standards, Djokovic has done something wrong. We would have really enjoyed watching him get cleared to play and then watching him lose, preferably in an early round. But to cast every unvaccinated athlete—let alone person—in the exact same mold is to take some of the sheer absurdity of this particular situation.
We’re all exhausted by pandemic discourse. So, while maintaining that all of this could have been solved with a simple poke or two in the arm, we’re going to do our best to enjoy Novak’s villainy, revel in the sheer incompetence of the Aussie bureaucrats, and watch some pretty backhands—even if they’re not Novak’s.
Do you want to read about . . .
. . . the latest on the MLB lockout? “The Clock Is Ticking, but M.L.B. and its Players Remain Apart,” by James Wagner in The New York Times (January 14, 2021).
. . . the opiate of the masses (a.k.a the NFL)? “The NFL has an extraordinary grip on America’s media diet,” by Kendall Baker in Axios (January 14, 2021).
. . . the questionable firing of another Black NFL coach? “The firing of Brian Flores shows the uphill climb Black NFL coaches still face,” by John Feinstein in The Washington Post (Janaury 10, 2021).