One of the most outspoken and successful athletes in history, Martina Navratilova, was packing for a quick trip to this city last week when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg offered a take on Colin Kaepernick’s national anthem protest. Ginsburg called it “dumb and disrespectful,” and added, “If they want to be stupid, there’s no law that should be preventive.”
Navratilova bristled, and had good reason to. While she also thinks Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality “may be somewhat disrespectful,” she told me that athletes like him should be praised for speaking out on social issues — not shamed for it — especially when they do so in a peaceful way, as Kaepernick has.
“So many athletes are afraid to use their platform to do the right thing and speak what they feel, and that’s very depressing,” Navratilova told me when we met last Wednesday here, a day before she was a keynote speaker at a human-rights event at the State Department. “Sure, they are afraid of insulting people and losing money because of it, and everyone wants to make the maximum amount of money in their lifetime. But at the expense of who you are? I don’t know. That just wasn’t in my DNA.”
Athletes across the country, in the professional leagues, at the college level and even in high schools, have joined Kaepernick in his protest. It’s still a minority, but the sports landscape is changing faster than ever. Lately, it has changed by the week.
More professional athletes than ever are feeling bold enough to delve into issues once considered taboo in their field because no one wanted to upset the fans, who buy tickets, or the owners, who sign paychecks, or the coaches, who decide who will play and who won’t.
Just look at LeBron James’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton, and the WNBA’s growing silent protests, which included some teams wearing T-shirts that support the Black Lives Matter movement. At this tense and delicate time in the United States, some athletes are using their fame for something bigger and deeper than sports. They don’t have to, and shouldn’t have to, but it’s encouraging to see some who finally want to — and are doing something about it.
It’s amazing to think it has taken this long for this point to come, and even more amazing to think that more than three decades have gone by since Navratilova — who won 18 Grand Slam singles titles, including a record nine Wimbledon titles — began using her power in sports as a pulpit to preach about issues she cared about. She said she could never have silenced herself, considering how and where she grew up.
Navratilova, who turns 60 on Tuesday, was born in Czechoslovakia, to parents she said were kicked out of their university for their anti-Communist views. When she was a child, she often read the newspaper her father brought home from work every day because she craved information about the world.
When she was 18, in 1975, she defected to the United States so she could play tennis “when I want and where I want,” leaving her family — and a totalitarian regime — behind and remaining stateless for six years before the United States accepted her as one of its own. In 1981, after gaining U.S. citizenship, she came out as a bisexual and became one of the first openly gay athletes, later identifying herself as a lesbian. It was a move she said cost her millions of dollars in endorsements.
After going through all that, speaking out on other issues became easy, she said.
“I was always controversial, being gay, so nothing was more controversial than that,” Navratilova said, adding that it might have been easier to speak her mind than it would have been if she had played a team sport.
“OK, sure, Michael Jordan could’ve said anything and he could’ve gotten away with it — but he didn’t,” she said. “But if you’re not Michael Jordan, and the front office doesn’t like you, or the coach doesn’t like you, you’re going to get cut. So I think it has to come from the management, to make the athletes feel safe enough to speak out.”
She added: “Tennis was different. It was a meritocracy, so I never had to worry about losing my livelihood.”
So Navratilova said what she felt — often loudly and clearly. She also has rarely, if ever, backed away from anything she has said, unlike Ginsburg, who in a statement Friday said she had been “inappropriately dismissive and harsh” about Kaepernick’s protest.
Navratilova publicly criticized President George W. Bush about his conservative policies and said she was ashamed of him. And she criticized Bill Clinton for his “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy regarding gays in the military, saying he “wimped out.”
Navratilova has also fought for causes like children’s rights, animal rights and, of course, gay rights, and spoke at the 1993 march on Washington for gay rights. She also is a proponent of marriage equality, which makes sense because she got married two years ago, but had to exchange vows in New York City because it wasn’t yet legal in Florida, where she lives.
On Thursday, though, Navratilova’s subject of the day was human rights. At an event at the State Department convened to discuss how to improve human rights at large international sports events, she called on entities like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, to ensure that their events are safe and open to everyone, without discrimination, and said it was a responsibility they can’t continue to shirk.
Nikki Dryden, a former Olympic swimmer for Canada who became a human rights and immigration lawyer, sat in the audience and couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“No other athlete of her caliber has ever spoken like this, with such conviction and with such power,” Dryden said. “So many other athletes, even the retired ones, are afraid of tarnishing the IOC or their federation because they think it will tarnish their brand, even if they don’t even have a brand. It’s crazy.”
In 2012, Navratilova opened a Twitter account. On her feed, there’s a flurry of posts every day, sometimes every hour. But don’t look for her to talk much tennis. She shouldn’t have to.
Part of her Twitter bio says: “Like to talk politics, though some would rather I stick to tennis :). No chance!!!”
In July, she stopped reading her Twitter responses because some were just too toxic. More times than she can count, she said, people have told her to go back to her home country, accusing her of hating the United States. They have said much worse things, she said, things unprintable in this column, regarding her sexual orientation.
“Most of those hurtful tweets came from Donald Trump supporters because I tweet a lot about Trump,” she said. “It cracked me up when some said, ‘You dumb jock, you need to stick to tennis,’ because I actually lived in a tyrannical autocracy. I know propaganda when I see it, and I can speak with authority on it.”
I asked her if Trump had replied on Twitter. She said she didn’t think so.
“It would be hard for him to insult me, how is he going to insult me?” she said, laughing. ‘By saying, “You’re a loser? You were never that good of a tennis player?’ I don’t think so.”