As first reported by Sportico, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, which runs the Wimbledon tournament, has banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing in Wimbledon in June. The move represents an explicit form of national origin discrimination that, in an employment situation, would be regarded as illegal. It also invites discussion on the absence of a limiting principle when future geopolitical conflicts arise.
In a statement, the AELTC says, “it would be unacceptable for the Russian regime to derive any benefits from the involvement of Russian or Belarusian players with The Championships.”
The ban will exclude the world’s No. 2 ranked player, Daniil Medvedev, who was born in Russia but now resides in Monaco. Last month, British sports minister Nigel Huddleston suggested that Medvedev could only play in the season’s third Grand Slam if he expressed disapproval of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Other notable Russian and Belarusian players include Aryna Sabalenka (No. 4 women’s), Andrey Rublev (No. 8 men’s) and Victoria Azarenka (No. 18 women’s). Per an accompanying decision by the Lawn Tennis Association, these players will be kept out of Wimbledon warmup events.
The ATP, which governs men’s pro tennis, objected to the bans on Wednesday.
“We believe that today’s unilateral decision by Wimbledon and the LTA to exclude players from Russia and Belarus from this year’s British grass-court swing,” an ATP statement asserts, “is unfair and has the potential to set a damaging precedent for the game.” The ATP also alludes to a potential breach of contract lawsuit. “Discrimination based on nationality also constitutes a violation of our agreement with Wimbledon that states that player entry is based solely on ATP Rankings.”
In the U.S., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and state laws make it illegal for employers to discriminate by national origin, including in hiring, promotion and pay. Since the invasion of Ukraine, there have been reports of Russian-Americans being harassed in workplaces. Employers are legally obligated to take steps to prevent those clashes.
Sports associations openly discriminating on the basis of national origin or other demographic classifications is not new. Some golf clubs explicitly exclude women. In the past, many golf, tennis and country clubs denied entry to black people, Catholics, Jews and other targeted groups. Most recently, the Boston Athletic Association banned Russians and Belarusians from competing in the Boston Marathon.
Given recent social movements and promotion of diversity, the continued allowance for open discrimination might seem surprising. But the Civil Rights Act carves out a membership exception for “private clubs” and related establishments when they are “not in fact open to the public.” Athletes who play in competitions are also not employees or prospective employees—they are contestants or participants—and are thus less protected by antidiscrimination laws.
Bans of athletes on the basis of national origin raises questions about what they accomplish. Will barring Russian and Belarusian athletes from sports tournaments impact, in any appreciable way, Putin’s decision-making on Ukraine? If not, are they commendable in some other way or simply prejudicial? Banning individual athletes—including those who no longer reside in Russia or Belarus—is also different from banning national teams, which have direct ties to governments. FIFA, UEFA, the International Paralympic Committee and the International Olympic Committee have all banned Russian and Belarusian teams.
As of now, U.S. sports leagues have not declared players from Russia or Belarus ineligible. This is a notable point in the NHL, where The Hockey Writers recently calculated that 5.1% of players are Russian.
A national origin ban in one sports tournament means future tournaments could deploy the same measure. Given that conflicts across the globe will arise, under what conditions should national origin be used to exclude? Are there limiting principles? If it’s OK to discriminate by one normally prohibited category (national origin), what about other categories, like ethnicity, religion or race? These are questions that future generations will confront.