Five days ago, Novak Djokovic, the No. 1 men’s tennis player in the world, suggested that the sport take 10 steps back, rescind its policy on equal pay and, instead, write out bigger checks for the male players, who supposedly, statistically, draw more spectators. Glue back together that splintering glass ceiling -- quickly, before it’s too late!
Predictably, Djokovic’s comments were met with horror from many in the sports world and beyond. Tennis legends both past and present have spoken out in the hundred-odd hours since Djokovic’s declaration, as Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, to name two, poked and prodded, picked apart and pounced on the sexist nonsense being expressed by this global icon.
In an attempt to allay the ire and fire thrown his way, Djokovic posted a mea culpa on social media on Tuesday, and expressed a similar sentiment at a Miami Open press conference soon after. How much he bought into what he was saying, however, remains unclear, as his rote, seemingly regurgitated apologies appear to vacate any responsibility he may have had in furthering the harmful, regressive message that men deserve to be paid more.
In his apologies, he followed a questionable line of reasoning. He tried to explain away the issue by claiming that he was distracted and hyped on adrenaline when he spoke out on Sunday, and that people have misunderstood what he was trying to express, not that he may have said something wrong.
On Facebook, he wrote: “As you may have seen, I was asked to comment on a controversy that wasn’t of my making. Euphoria and adrenalin after the win on Sunday got the best of me and I’ve made some comments that are not the best articulation of my view.”
At the news conference, he said: “I never had an issue with equality in gender or sport or other areas of life. We all deserve more of the wealth distribution from the tournaments. I feel very sorry if I hurt my female colleague tennis players. I have a huge respect for all of them.”
According to The New York Times, in the wake of the pseudo-scandal, Djokovic has reached out to Williams and met with King and fellow tennis great Chris Evert, categorizing his talk with the former as “a nice and friendly chat.”
None of the statements and apologies that have come from Djokovic in the last couple of days are surprising. In 2016, apology press conferences are routine. A celebrity attempting to walk back regrettable remarks is par for the course. What is surprising -- and alarming, troubling and a telltale sign of how far we still have to go -- is that Djokovic’s apology so completely missed the mark and so entirely abdicated any responsibility in the matter.
His original comments on Sunday were eyebrow-raising, but his non-apology is similarly jaw-dropping. For a player who, even as he has climbed and held onto the top spot in the tennis world, has been constantly overshadowed by peers like Roger Federer, he finally had a moment that was all his. He could have walked to the stage, taken the stand and then really taken a stance -- admitting that he was wrong and that he has since learned from the women he has spoken with. He could've backtracked what he said days ago and replaced that sound bite with one of him firmly, fully embracing the should-be-obvious cause of equal pay.
But it was not to be. Instead of owning up to what he said, he decided to walk a tightrope instead. Not only do his tepid apologies and his tiptoeing around responsibility place him in the category of Semi-Frowned Upon Athlete, but, more importantly, he missed a chance to actually make a difference by doing something simple: admitting he was in the wrong.
And now, half a week later, as he tries to contextualize and cover up those comments, he still doesn’t seem to fully understand that it’s not a matter of walking back over the sexist remarks, but about flinging them so far out into the open, that everyone -- the Raymond Moores of the world et al. -- must stare them in the face and actually deal with them, beginning to unpack them to see where the faulty logic lies rather than just trying to bury them under the rug in the name of PR.
Of course, Djokovic’s response is part of a larger systemic issue. Part of the problem surely lies in the fact that within moments of letting ill-conceived thoughts slip from their lips, athletes know that they will be skewered for whatever it was that they said. So they are quick to apologize, half the time without seeming to know exactly what they did wrong. We're all so hasty to try to avoid the scandal that we tend to miss what is truly at stake.
There’s no easy fix or solution, no manual for how to properly recover from controversy. But Djokovic’s words this week -- at Indian Wells, on social media and in Miami -- underscore once more that there’s something wrong with a system that absolves athletes’ miscues as soon as they let out a sorry. Djokovic may very well be truly repentant for the remarks he made. But until we have a way to know that these Mad Lib-esque apologies are earnest and not just a must-do item on a player’s PR checklist, there seems to me to be something queasy about forgiving and forgetting so quickly.