Speak out and compete, or stay silent and stay home? Russian athletes face a dilemma.

Daniil Medvedev, of Russia, returns a shot to Gael Monfils, of France, at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

Russian Daniil Medvedev, the world’s top-ranked men’s tennis player, may not be able to compete at this year’s Wimbledon Championships—one of tennis’ crown jewels—if he does not denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.

Portraits of Daniel Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern and Matthew Smith, associate professor of philosophy. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

During a meeting of the British Parliament on Tuesday, Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said Russian and Belarusian athletes should provide “assurance” that they do not support Putin if they want to play at the All England Club. His comments come as the invasion in Ukraine enters its fourth week.

Forcing Russian and Belarusian tennis players to expressly condemn Putin would do little to put an end to the full-scale war. But the pressure of an international boycott on Russian and Belarusian athletes, on the other hand, could push a heavily sanctioned Russia deeper into isolation, says Daniel Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern.

At the very least, it would deprive Russia and Putin of what historically has been an important platform for projecting power and prestige, giving politicians the ability to connect with a broader audience through athletes competing under their national flag, he says.

“Russia is very cognizant of its global sport profile,” Lebowitz says. “The intersectionality of sport and hypermasculinity creates that dynamic where sport allows some nations to flex strength, and when they can’t do that, it takes away an incredibly large platform.”

Russia has already been expelled from the World Cup qualifiers in soccer. Its basketball team is barred from international competition, and tennis officials have called off the sport’s Moscow tournament. Organizers have moved the prestigious European club soccer tournament finals, the Champions League, from St. Petersburg to Paris, where they will take place in May.

A ban on athletes from competition is reminiscent of the sports boycott in apartheid South Africa in which whites-only South African teams were excluded from Olympic competition, Lebowitz says. Scholars have noted that pressures from the international boycott in the middle-to-late part of the 20th century had significant social and political ramifications for South Africa.

With the war in Ukraine intensifying by the day, and Putin ramping up attacks on civilians, the international community should be doing everything it can—short of military engagement—to pressure Russia to stop the invasion, Lebowitz says.

“With the size of this conflict, and the threat of nuclear war, we’re at a different conversation level now,” he says. “One of those pathways or on-ramps to defusing the situation … would be seeing if some of these boycotts—while they might be personally painful for the athletes—might help find an alternative pathway to resolution.”

In a sport like tennis, where players are representing themselves as individuals, as well as their home country, the pressures of speaking out are double-edged. Not doing so, in this case, would affect the players’ standings in the world rankings, because they would be banned from competing for one of the sport’s most coveted trophies. Were they to denounce the regime, which has been jailing anti-war protestors and crushing dissent for years, it could come at great personal cost.

After some debate over the situation, tennis’ governing bodies decided to allow players to compete individually as neutrals while prohibiting Russia and Belarus from team events, such as the Davis Cup, which pits countries against each other in a single-elimination format.

But forcing athletes to condemn their home country’s government would not achieve the kind of transformation that such gestures can help bring about when athletes are allowed to make them without coercion, says Matthew Smith, associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem in the U.S. to protest racial inequality and police brutality offers an example of the latter.

“They are threatening him [Medvedev] to create a spectacle of resistance,” Smith says. “But that is disingenuous and will not have the power Kaepernick’s had.”

Smith says that the political speech of any one individual won’t affect the outcome of something on the scale of a war. The point, he says, is merely to “draw attention to a structure” in which there are “massive forces at work”—in this case, Putin’s war in Ukraine. Without a broader, organized project capable of directly confronting Putin, symbolic gestures of protest only go so far.

If you ask someone to stand up against those forces, there have to be other structures in place to which they are contributing,” Smith says. “But so long as Europe keeps buying Russian gas, for example, any statement Medvedev is forced to make will be pointless.

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