A Man for Half a Season

Benjamin Markovits

As a child at Robert E. Lee elementary school (since renamed), I had to repeat the pledge of allegiance every morning before class. Rebelliously, I used to mouth the words. That’ll show ’em. What does Petey say at the end of The Birthday Party? ‘Stanley, don’t let them tell you what to do.’ Most families have a playlist of dinner table references, and ours included Chariots of Fire, A Man for All Seasons and an old Rolo ad that showed a man on a bus angrily explaining: ‘I cannot give you what I do not have. I have not got a Rolo.’ We were brought up to admire refuseniks.

In another political landscape, then, I might have been a Djokovic fan. Even a Kyrie Irving fan. People willing to take a stand on principle, at great personal cost: millions of dollars, childhood dreams, the day-to-day practice of a job they presumably love. Regardless of whether I know what the principle is, or believe in it. (It was announced this week that Djokovic will be allowed to play at the French Open; but he missed the Australian, isn’t playing at Indian Wells or Miami, and Wimbledon is one of the many tournaments still in the balance. Irving still can’t play home games for the Brooklyn Nets because of New York City’s vaccine mandate, though he is allowed to watch them maskless with all the other punters.)

Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire makes his stand on the sanctity of the Sabbath. It seems basically crazy to give up a chance at Olympic gold just because you don’t want to run on Sunday. Yet he holds his nerve and we’re supposed to respect him for it, even if I always preferred the Jewish guy, whose main problem is that he has to fight against England’s gentlemanly commitment to mediocrity.

The principle that costs Thomas More his life in A Man for All Seasons is similarly hard to get excited about. He won’t help Henry annul his marriage to his brother’s widow, because he doesn’t believe the king, on this matter, can overrule the pope. Robert Bolt, in my Vintage edition of the play, admits that he is ‘not a Catholic nor even in the meaningful sense of the word a Christian’. Which causes him some embarrassment: ‘Why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie?’

What Djokovic and Irving have refused to do is just as easy – to roll up their sleeves and hold out their arms. And the play has a lot to say about their predicament. ‘Well, Alice, what would you want me to do?’ More asks his wife. ‘Be ruled!’ she says, and More replies: ‘I neither could nor would rule my king. But there’s a little … little, area … where I must rule myself. It’s very little – less to him than a tennis court.’

By sticking to that area, he hopes to protect himself. The trick, so far as he sees it, is that he can refuse, but can’t give a reason for the refusal. Slowly the walls close in. The Act of Succession requires everyone to sign it; when More refuses, he’s imprisoned. But they can’t kill him unless they know why, and he sticks to his guns: ‘I insult no one. I will not take the oath. I will not tell you why I will not.’

Here’s what Djokovic said to the BBC last month: ‘Based on all the informations that I got I decided not to take the vaccine … as of today. I keep my mind open, because we are all trying to find collectively a best possible solution to end Covid.’

It’s interesting to watch people when they can’t say what they actually think. Some find it easier than others. More is very good at it. Cranmer tries to convince him that the right and wrong of the oath is ‘capable of question’, so he should choose a certainty over a doubt and follow his duty to his king. More replies: ‘Some men think the earth is round; others think it flat. It is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the king’s command make it round?’

As it happens, before he took this stand on vaccination, Kyrie Irving was probably most famous (outside basketball) for being a flat-earther, or at least pretending to be a flat-earther. It was sometimes hard to tell:

All I want to do is be able to have that open conversation. It was all an exploitation tactic. It literally spun the world – your guys’ world – it spun it into a frenzy and proved exactly what I thought it would do in terms of how all this works. It created a division, or, literally stand up there and let all these people throw tomatoes at me, or have somebody think I’m somehow a different intellectual person because I believe that the earth is flat and you think the world is round. It created exactly that.

Later, he clarified his position: ‘I do research on both sides . . . I’m not against anyone that thinks the earth is round. I’m not against anyone that thinks it’s flat. I just love hearing the debate.’ Though he also, jokingly, apologised to science teachers everywhere for making them ‘reteach their whole curriculum’.

Djokovic has taken a similar line on the vaccine:

You know no one in the whole process during Australian saga has asked me on my stance or on my opinion on vaccination, no one so I could not really express you know what I feel or where my stance is neither in the legal process neither outside. So it’s really unfortunate that there has been this kind of misconception and wrong conclusion that has been made around the world based upon something that I completely disagree with.

It isn’t totally clear what he disagrees with. The idea that he’s ‘against’ vaccination? Or the science in favour of it? Both Irving and Djokovic fall back on the freedom to choose, which includes the freedom More insists on – not to give reasons for their choice. ‘It’s not politics,’ Irving says. ‘It’s just about the freedom of what I want to do.’ Or as Djokovic puts it: ‘But I’ve always represented and always supported the freedom to choose what you put in your body. And for me that is essential, it’s really the principle of understanding what is right and what is wrong for you.’

Bolt, explaining why he wrote the play, talked about a certain sense of self, which religion used to provide: ‘But though few of us have anything in ourselves like an immortal soul which we regard as absolutely inviolable, yet most of us still feel something which we should, on the whole, prefer not to violate.’

I’ve never been a Djokovic fan. Or a Federer fan either, for that matter. I’d root for Nadal against both, and Murray against all of them. Kyrie Irving is a beautiful basketball player to watch, but I’ve always wanted him to lose. And I don’t understand why they won’t get the vaccine. There are reasonable arguments to be had about the justice and efficiency of mandates, but the calculation in their particular situations seems pretty simple: they’d be better off getting jabbed. Then again, I’d also be happy to run on Sunday, or let my boss get divorced.


  • 19 March 2022 at 3:25pm
    David Starr says:
    Feels like he needs to brush up on positive not just negative liberty. Where do the rest of us and his obligation to us figure in his thinking? I’m not even considering his selective reliance on some sources re science. These guys are more contrarians than they are critics.

    • 21 March 2022 at 3:25pm
      Bob K says: @ David Starr
      If you're talking about the tennis player, it's not clear what his obligation to the rest of us is. It's vanishingly unlikely that he, in his particular circumstances, could infect someone in Australia with Covid. It would seem that his obligation was to not suggest that anyone was entitled to refuse a vaccination. That's a fairly weird obligation to weigh against a desire to control what he puts into his body.

      Anyway, it's all moot now until the next pandemic comes along.

    • 23 March 2022 at 10:46am
      Reader says: @ Bob K
      Djokovic had no obligation to the rest of us. Equally, the rest of us (or rather, the Australian government) had no obligation to allow him to break the rules that applied to everybody else.

      But as for the article as a whole, I find the tendency to equate Djokovic to Thomas More to be contrarian. Thomas More chose to lose his life rather than give way on a point of principle. I personally think he was wrong, but I cannot help respecting him. But what did Djokovic lose? The chance of another tennis title. Not quite the same, is it?

  • 19 March 2022 at 8:50pm
    Laurie Strachan says:
    The idea that a tennis player, no matter how good, knows better than an epidemiologist how to deal with a pandemic is simply ludicrous. You may call it libertarianism but it's no more than gross selfishness.

    • 29 March 2022 at 7:01am
      Dan says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Another deliberate misinterpretation. Djokovic never said him refusing to be injected against his will would 'deal with the pandemic' better, it was always about his choice what he's injected with. I really struggle to remain civil when otherwise rational people make perverse arguments about forcing someone to take something they don't want to 'for their own protection'. I suspect in a different age they would be in favour of forced sterilisations and all manner of interventions for some 'greater good'.

    • 30 March 2022 at 12:26pm
      Rory Allen says: @ Dan
      I don't follow your argument - maybe I am just being stupid, but perhaps you would kindly explain. Who was 'forcing someone to take something they don't want for their own protection'? Djokovic always had the option of refusing the take the vaccine, a right that in the end he implemented. The corollary was that he faced the consequence, of not being able to enter Australia. It was his free choice, freely exercised. Where does the equation of his treatment to 'forced sterilisations' come in? Are you allowing emotion to get the better of rational deduction here? (And yes, I am a Mr Spock on these matters, before you make the obvious comment).

  • 22 March 2022 at 2:46pm
    Michael Taylor says:
    I thought the problem with Djokovic turning up for the Australian Open was that he tried to circumvent the federal government's COVID-19 quarantine rules, which would have excluded him. To me, Djokovic could only have been taking a stand if he had said, I want to play in Melbourne, but my principles on not taking unknown substances into my body contradict this, and so I will not take part. In other words, he was prepared to suffer for his beliefs. At the time, it seems to me, he wanted to avoid suffering. Now it seems the facts are being reinterpreted after the event.

    • 29 March 2022 at 7:19am
      Dan says: @ Michael Taylor
      I agree, and I think they're being reinterpreted on both sides. Djokovic wasn't going to travel to aus, but the tournament organiser was keen to have the world number one, and the best player of all time, compete. Djokovic was granted an exemption, which wasn't recognised by the charming men at border control. This was overturned in a court which said djokovic couldn't have done more to abide by the rules. Djokovic was invited and from a legal point of view had a right to be there. The reason for his embarrassing deportation was on the whim of a minister, who had the power to exclude him ultra vires. He, unsurprisingly, did this after a week of keeping djokovic detained because djokovic being in the country might inflame passions. We can't have that at a sporting event now, can we?
      Djokovic broke no law, he fell foul of an authoritatarian system. Perhaps next time we're reading the LRB criticise the British police for their treatment of minorities or our own charming men in the border force, we should reflect on their hypocritical support for faceless and arbitrary authority in this case.

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