This blog is about sports marketing, sports sponsorship and how companies can use sport as an excellent communication tool to achieve commercial and positioning objectives.
This blog does not deal with vaccines, health protocols, microbiology and medical issues. This is because we are neither doctors nor virologists, but women and men of marketing and sport.
This premise, which is as silly as it is necessary at a time in history when knowledge is intermingled and professionalism is often forgotten, serves to frame the following lines which reflect on the exemption received by tennis player Novak Djokovic at the dawn of the Australian Open.
The summary of the previous episodes is simple. The Australian Open, the first and most important slam of the season, had stipulated in its rules for participation in 2022 that all tennis players must be vaccinated for Sars-Cov-2. The rule in question put the participation of Novak Djokovic, world number one and defending champion of the event, at serious risk. Djokovic, whose opinions on the vaccine have always been negative, has often refused to declare whether or not he has been inoculated, pointing out that health issues are personal matters that cannot be vetoed or legislated against. However, it is only in the last few days that Tennis Australia and the state of Victoria have granted Djokovic an exemption from the vaccination requirement for medical reasons, allowing the 34-year-old Serb to play in the land of the kangaroos.
These are the facts, not including any flights of fancy.
The facts are followed by many reactions and various considerations.
The reactions are on the news and in the newspapers of the last few days and they are, evidently, in the opposite direction to the decision of the Tournament organisers, in a situation that risks embarrassing the ATP. Almost all public opinion, politics and the sporting world have expressed disagreement with Djokovic’s arrival on the continent, culminating in the words of the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison who threatened to put the champion back on the “first plane out of the country”.
The considerations, on the other hand, need a little more thought.
Whoever is writing these lines – and we repeat – does not know the medical criteria of the exemption that was granted to Nole to participate without vaccine in the tournament. One reads somewhere that the reasons are to be found in heart problems, but it is an opinion that has raised more than a few eyebrows and that seems little in line with the current condition of one of the most extraordinary athletes of the last fifty years. The first consideration, therefore, is that in a situation as extraordinary as the Covid-19 pandemic, the cards must be laid very clearly on the table. If there is a regulatory loophole to avoid a vaccine against the biggest disease of the century, this must be made clear, and it must apply as much to the tennis player Djokovic as to others, sports professionals or not. If, on the other hand, it is Djokovic’s health condition that is causing concern, it is necessary to make this clear and avoid a controversy that has quickly spilled over from sport into civil society, politics and global public opinion.
The reason for such clarity, which would not be necessary in times of normality (if I am not healthy, I certainly do not have to share my condition with others), is to be found in the absolute exceptionality of the circumstance. If desperate times call for desperate measures, then unfortunately in the midst of a virus outbreak – as the numbers rise and the spectre of lockdown returns – everything must be crystal clear.
The second consideration has to do with the concept of expediency, or being and acting in a way that is appropriate to the situation. It is clear as day that Tennis Australia and the whole tournament could do with the participation of the world number one. No one wants to see F1 without Hamilton or Verstappen, a Lakers game without LeBron James and only God knows how many headaches FIFA has at the moment while someone is already speculating about a World Cup without the phenomenon Ronaldo or without the European champions Italy. But that means playing short ball and not seeing the potential mess in the long run.
In all likelihood, having Djokovic on the court in January 2022 risks bringing down the reputation of an organisation, a tournament and a sport for some time. Sure, the Serb’s sponsors will be happy (maybe, because nobody likes to be in the middle of the storm), but what about the sponsors of others? Will they be happy to fund athletes in a tournament now under the long shadow of medical fraud?
The third consideration has to do with the gentlemen’s agreement that sport has made with society and which is now in danger of breaking down. While the whole of Australia is up in arms about the exemption granted to the Slav, it is essential to remember that the whole toy only works as long as the rules that apply to the ordinary citizen also apply to the first of the champions. While the battle rages on our soil over whether the vaccine is compulsory to enter work and the use of Covid passes to access services, the biggest mistake a sporting property can make is to sweep the dust under the carpet and treat the coronavirus vaccine like the theft of a piece of candy between kids. On this subject, it is necessary to bear in mind that we live in delicate times of short fuses, and that patience is an increasingly rare resource.
The fourth and last consideration, finally, falls within the narrative of precedent setting. Offering Titius exemption – by definition a privilege dispensing him from a common obligation – means giving Caius the right to do the same. One has to be careful here, because the legal principle of stare decisis then requires one to remain consistent in the future. What happens, in essence, if instead of Djokovic it is the world number 145 or 514 who asks for an exemption? And what happens if, in addition to Djokovic, fifty or a hundred people apply for exemption? Clearly, these are questions of logic rather than substance, but as already mentioned, we live in hard times.
In conclusion, Djokovic – as well as everyone else – is free to hold his own opinions on the vaccine and this has nothing to do with his sporting merit. Likewise, those who are not doctors are not entitled to judge a medical exemption, provided that this is what it is about and that this is made clear. For the other questions, however, we must be smart and careful, and stop avoiding the elephant in the room. The risk is to anger the good guys and make sport the object of popular rage.