When long-time Challenger-level player Tennys Sandgren dispatched his third round opponent Maximillian Marterer last night, my blog stats went up 5000% immediately. I am one of the few faithful attenders of Challenger level tennis and had previously written about Tennys seizing the title here in Champaign, IL in 2013. May I repeat before I go further, that you should all be watching the Challengers. Any guy in the top 500 in the world is playing excellent tennis. If you’re a fan and live near an event on the Challenger tour, check it out.
Having seen Tennys Sandgren more or less annually, I was curious how the media would cover this break-out performance. Predictably, the media has latched on to the obvious contours of Tennys Sandgren’s inspiring story: a hard-working grinder who finally makes good, becoming the LAMP–the “Last American Male Player”–in the Australian Open. Chris Clarey and Ben Rothenberg both remarked on his instant media appeal: humble, generous to other players, unassuming, knowledgable about the game, and philosophical about his career and chances.
But I was gratified, truly, when various tweeps quickly reminded seasoned journalists that Tennys has another side–as an avid social media amplifier of alt-right views disparaging immigrants, women, and the very notion of equality. I had been retweeting those views enough that word got around in “these twitter streets,” as the Body Serve podcast likes to call them, that Sandgren was one of a heap of right-wing American players, and perhaps the most classically white supremacist of the bunch. And so when Chris Clarey of the New York Times chimed in with how wonderfully humane Tennys was in interview,
he was quickly checked.
And if you follow the replies, Clarey was checked, and checked, and checked again. I love you all. You make a Mom very proud.
Someone asked me if I thought the mainstream news would ever pick up the story of Tennys’ extreme views. I doubt it. Tennys Sandgren would not have been spouting off all these years if he didn’t feel very secure that nobody who counted would ever push back. He could comfortably imagine his views would be seen as irrelevant as long as he appeared to be a nice easy-going guy, and played good tennis.
And he’s got reason to believe that. It’s not clear to me that John Isner’s following or endorsements have suffered any from his constant RT-ing and liking of Trump’s tweets, even as Trump’s popularity enters a death spiral. Athletes are not generally asked about their politics if they are white. Of course, we have abundant evidence from the NBA and the NFL that if a black athlete expresses political views, they’ll be made to answer for it, even if they aren’t fined outright.
And so we have to address that inequality by making the political views of white athletes more visible–as visible as we can. As I pointed out when people said, well Tennys Sandgren can’t be a nice guy if he holds those views, you’d be surprised. He is humble (about the sport). He does have perspective (about his career). He can be very nice if you meet him in person, as I’ve already discussed. He’s often courteous to ball runners and tournament staff. By the general definition of the word “nice,” Sandgren is nice.
But as I also argued, that’s totally irrelevant to me now. Hitler didn’t get elected and swing into power because the rank and file Germans of the time were bad neighbors lacking in common courtesy. The rank and file Germans loved their kids and friends. The rank and file Germans were athletes, and opera singers, professors, and shopkeepers. They were not all stupid, uncultured, or lacking in sympathy for people who seemed similar to them. But they were also, in sufficient measure, racist, and supported Hitler because he would get rid of people they considered not desirable.
Americans have difficulty reconciling this apparent contradiction. We’ve seen too many movies in which Southern separatists are depicted as monsters and German Nazis as sociopaths. We have to get over that if we want to understand how Trump got elected, and how he could get elected again.
And that, folks, is why I began forwarding the offensive tweets of the American players I had previously admired. We need to know what we’re supporting when we support players who by virtue of birth (and, in Sandgren’s case, by virtue of his mother’s immigration from South Africa), get to put USA after their names. They automatically get support from a mass of American tennis fans who are–understandably–dying to see that our country can reach the peak of the sport again. But many folks, like me, don’t care anymore how good you play or if you’re “nice.” We want to see a lot less hate promoted in this world.
One commenter to my blog asked why I didn’t just tell Sandgren how I felt when I had the chance face to face instead of going behind his back on the internet.
Well, there’s a few reasons for that, which I hope would be obvious.
You might not have noticed, but Sandgren is over six feet, nearly two hundred pounds, and has a powerful right arm. I’m a tiny woman. He sought me out to talk about politics, and I didn’t want to have that conversation. I was a fan, not a journalist, at this event. It was…weird.
The second reason is I only have seen him at tournaments where I go out of my way not to disturb players. I wouldn’t want someone coming to my office with a personal beef.
But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Sandgren can put whatever crap he wants on social media, feeling pretty secure none of the groups he maligns will face him directly. If he didn’t feel secure, he wouldn’t do it.
I didn’t take his hood off. He did that all by himself.