Professional athletes are warrior-philosophers, imprinting themselves on society through physical heroics and dispersing their beliefs in the tailwind, where they pollinate a potentially impressionable audience awestruck by highlight reels and championship glory. Nice for them, not always for us. It’s stunning how many stiflingly banal opinions I’ve been invited to absorb and contemplate for no other reason than they were delivered by someone exceptionally good at manipulating a ball in three-dimensional space (well, not always a ball, but you get my gist): Neymar, Kyrie Irving, Herschel Walker, Jose Canseco, Brett Favre, John Elway, Ronda Rousey, Tony LaRussa, Mariano Rivera, the list stretches on. Yet I can comprehend the freedom these figures must feel to air their thoughts with no modulation or methodology, as the exhilaration of competitive accomplishment, and the accolades that follow, easily translates to a sense of immunity from the norms binding us normies. Why shouldn’t the warrior-philosophers share what they think about the Jews, or 9/11, or Donald Trump, or the woke elite? Why shouldn’t we, the worshipful public, listen?
So they share, and we listen, and they share, and we listen, until slowly the stakes change. Their accomplishments were too long ago; their accolades are too easily decontextualized; outpaced by modernity, they’re now just a person we hear from every now and then, usually for no good reason. I can only imagine what it’s like after years of experienced dominance slowly but surely give way to the reality of knees, hips, backs. Worse, how that decline in physical skill correlates to a leveling off in how you’re appraised by others, who’ve spent so long venerating your talents and now have no real reason to give a shit once you can no longer handle the rock or thread the backhand. What can be done with such people, who insist on being heard? Their names can be displaced from records and stripped from stadiums, but they’ll still be around to lend a quote when convenient. Likely it never ends until death, the ultimate cancellation, where once again the rest of us will grapple with what it all meant, if anything at all.
Lately I’ve been imagining what it’s like to be Margaret Court, the Australian women’s player heralded in some circles as the greatest of all-time. True: Court’s 24 Grand Slam singles titles remain unmatched by any other player, male or female. True: Court’s Open-era winning percentage of 91.67% is the highest of all-time. Astonishing stuff; I want to hear from the sports bettors who made thousands off “Court to win,” every time. Also true: Court’s repeatedly iterated anti-gay views have earned resolute condemnation from the international tennis community, and led to her increased distancing from the contemporary game. Also true: When Serena Williams, more popularly regarded as the greatest women’s tennis player ever, played what appeared to be her final match, Court openly complained that the younger woman had never been all that friendly to her, for whatever reason.
Today Court, at 80 years old, haunts the discourse like Moaning Myrtle, lofting her grievances to any outlet who’ll post them while demonstrating a thorough refusal to understand, even at the basic intuitive level of “well, here is the expected tradeoff for my socially unacceptable beliefs, which I stand by because it’s what I believe,” how her opinions have warranted explicit exiling by her peers and successors. Even in a series of 2021 comments, in which she reverted to the obfuscated “hate the sin, love the sinner” position beloved by all casual bigots, she insisted she was being bullied. Bullied! This from an octogenarian who’d written, in a 2013 newspaper column, about the birth of a child to a younger Australian tennis player in a lesbian relationship: “It is with sadness that I see that this baby has seemingly been deprived of a father.” Were I a hectoring man, here’s where I’d declare she has not done the work; she has not held herself accountable; she has done a no growth, a white fragility, a weak apology.
Yet I find myself feeling an inch of sympathy as I observe this woman harrumph about, limply endorsed by nobody but the “stop cancel culture” partisans who can’t even bring themselves to defend what she’s been canceled for, as even a free speech absolutist would concede that anyone who repeatedly and doggedly expresses they have a fundamental issue with homosexuals is going to experience some social blowback. Court was, for many years, the best women’s tennis player of all-time, and if you believe in happy coincidences, her hegemony was reinforced by her name, the arena where all tennis conflicts literal and metaphorical are adjudicated. Her success was no fiction erected in a weaker era staffed by plumbers and housewives; copious color TV footage exists of Court dispatching talented rivals like Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Evonne Goolagong. She was undeniable to everything but the march of time, her achievements more distanced from the public with each passing year, during which new GOATs (Martina, Steffi, Serena, et al.) arrived to supplant her, bit-by-bit, on the common ground where all athletes are appraised by the relentless now.
Thus a once-GOAT is reduced to a crank, aged inelegantly within a shifting social climate she possesses no capacity to fathom from within the bubble that once insulated her from conventional reality. Formerly lauded for her ability to be herself yet hammered now for her inability to change that self, she shuffles around the house, her reputation entirely contingent on the judgment of others, eager to accept sinecures for speaking engagements at right-wing political projects while bemoaning the unfaithful public. She, and such other increasingly inchoate aged athletes, are like unwanted party guests, occupying the public real estate long after the cause for their invitation has diminished, waiting for psychic winds to shift and once again validate their staunchly maintained egos. The millions of dollars earned and fêtings received is a more than healthy reward for life in the civic square, but I wonder if anyone had ever explained the rules to her. I wonder if she understood she would grow old, and eventually just become another node in the system, not a master engineer to dictate the way of things long after her capability to do it in competition had faded. The star athlete, even more than the ruthless billionaire or cult leader, understands what it’s like to be treated as a god — but only for a short while.
My last competitive athletic moment transpired over a decade ago, when my high school best friend Wesley and I convened after dark at a local public park to idly shoot the old leather pumpkin, and were immediately conscripted into 2-on-2 hoops against a pair of enterprising young men who showed up not long after, spotted us, and keenly thought “Easy pickings.” Wesley and I had wandered over in unsporting jeans and sneakers, and in particular I was wearing Converse high-tops; our rivals donned sweat-wicking mesh shirts and basketball shorts; all of us were Asian, which I’m still unpacking. Two recollections: At one point the abysmal friction of the Converse led me to overstretch for the ball, skid across the concrete, and tumble carelessly, my knee skin saved only by the denim. And we didn’t lose so much as the game ended when one of the other guys whipped the ball into my face, accidentally. But we weren’t up, I know that.
It’s hard to imagine why we’d ventured to a basketball court other than there’s only so much Super Smash Bros. a teen boy can play before a deep existential malaise sets in. Possibly we were testing out the fantasy that we might enter this setting, and find ourselves above-average at something that was not our trade. We wanted to shoot the rock, feel the breeze of trailing your teammate in transition and knowing the ball’s coming to you for an easy two. After our pathetic showing, I knew it was over. I might enjoy the cardiovascular benefits of mild exercise in my advancing age, but nothing else. A bitter-ish pill, though the self-knowledge of accepting you stink, however diminishing, is bearable while young. I’m glad I swallowed it while there was still time to believe something new about who I was.
Jeremy Gordon is a writer from Chicago who contributes to The New York Times, The Nation, GQ, and The New York Times Magazine. He lives in Brooklyn.
Art by Kees Holterman.