Why it’s Ok to push back on John Isner’s “Politics”

There was a moment during the Miami semis when an Isner-backing fan in the crowd mistakenly yelled out “come on, Josh…” A common enough occurrence, but it unwittingly hit upon an important truth about sports, and culture in general: that players/celebs are, for the most part, better known via the personas they project, and that we ascribe to them.

Of course, this is largely true of ourselves too. ‘You can never truly know a person’ goes the saying— only the cipher that carefully mediates our multiple identities in life.

Nor is #josh always the handiwork of PR gurus, and corporate lobbyists, but whatever is sometimes coughed up by the weekly machine of circumstance, happenstance, and half-truths.

And then there’s those occasions when even the caricature is partly or thoroughly deserved — when the shoe fits. Not that this is always a welcome realisation either, and denial can just as often cause us to hit back with a #josh of our own. #josh, thus, serves just as well as a kind of algorithmic doppelgänger for the lies we tell ourselves, and the contrivances we employ.

It’s within this obsessively human marketplace of #joshes that I want to place the question of Isner’s politics and Trump, which we are so often breezily told doesn’t mix with sport.

‘Sports and politics don’t mix’ (SAPDOM…is so apt) was for many years, and still remains, the maxim of choice for those looking to duck the uncomfortable contradictions (and scrutiny) that occasionally — despite organisers’ best efforts — bubble up to the surface, and must confront any athlete of standing in a global and globalised sport.

I suspect most knew what horseshit it was even back then (it’s effectively a ‘no comment’ so why not just ‘no comment’? ), but what was, perhaps, once an understandable response from athletes wanting to remain free of distraction, gradually began to ring less and less true.

Bolstered in part by the immediacy and decentralised lens of the internet/social media on the world around us, it soon became more voguish for a progressive breed of sports writer to describe themselves as existing on ‘the intersection of sports and politics’. As if the former has ever historically been divorced from the latter.

Trump, however, has, by any reckoning, been a watershed; and SAPDOM — to which a stubborn subset duly clings on —now feels more like an anachronism, or wistful nostalgia.

In case it’s not already obvious, politics doesn’t just mix with sport, it courses through its veins: often informing, animating, nurturing and even clarifying ‘performance’; it necessarily colours almost the entirety of how athletes engage with their craft, and, in turn, our consumption of its highs and lows. Indeed, that would be the case were sport not already intricately bound up with nationhood and corporatism.

You may as well say ‘culture and culture don’t mix’.

Of course, what many of those that don’t want sports to mix with politics are really saying is that they want to prescribe, and often proscribe, the terms of how they mix — a different order of privilege from merely wanting to remain untroubled by others’ experience.

Flag unfurlings, speeches “honouring our troops” (and perhaps not so subliminally, overseas militarism itself), and other so-called ‘paid patriotism’ including NFL military recruitment drives, are all in. Power salutes, taking-a-knee, or minorities otherwise drawing attention to how impervious the national mythos has proved to their lived experience, are, on the other hand, “pathetic”, or that very worst of things, “divisive”.

My favourite commentators are those that breathlessly cast sports as a “microcosm of life”, but also want it to politely demur from questions about “life”, and, in particular, the sort of “life” that others (often your fellow citizen) undergo.

And so to the question of John Isner who, after three runner-up finishes, and at the ripe young age 32, won his maiden M1000 earlier this month in a 6–7 (4–7) 6–4 6–4 win over Alexander Zverev. It wasn’t a great match, in all honesty, which speaks to one of the hats Isner’s been made to wear over the years.

You see, #josh was always partly defined by his height, not so much “serving from a tree” as being that “tree”. Parlaying on the i̶n̶f̶a̶m̶y̶ virality of “Isnut”, he earnt respect through both regular Davis Cup appearances, and a steady rise up the rankings, though unable to shake off his longer-term tennistwitter ‘servebot’ designation. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but a sort of not-unwholesome dude, a college tennis success story, which many Americans clearly got behind.

And thus it might have stayed, seeing out his remaining few years on tour, but for silly politics getting in the way again…

Because, in the two year lead-up to the election, and perhaps even before, that season-one, all-american #josh, and some of his compatriots, began to be more forthright about their “politics”.

I’ve never found it that worthwhile to fixate on twitter likes and follows (which, at best, end up confirming what you already know), but in some ways, the Sandgren situation served as a moral clarifier, and set a benchmark against which to evaluate what we are continually told are more general “right wing” attitudes.

Because the distinguishing feature of Sandgren, of course, is that he went well beyond right wing conservatism, fraternising with a contemporary who’s-who of far-right nationalism, the so-called “alt-right”.

He apparently had no compunction about doing this, and seemingly wanted us (at least before the subsequent twitter purge) to know the views he held; it’s his defenders — and definitely not Sandgren — that were insisting we “Stick to tennis”.

This was important, because it gave lie to the romanticised view of valiant free-speech advocates supposedly defending the right of some to hold “traditional values”. Sandgren’s taste for the far-right is traditional insofar as white supremacy is sewn into the very fabric of the US constitution. But it’s also removed from what any self-respecting ‘mainstream’ conservative (which would seem to exclude most of the GOP for now) should want to identify with — any honest accounting would, you’d think, want to underscore that, if nothing else.

That it was instead glossed over, defended even, by some tennis journalists and on tennistwitter, with apple-pie homilies extolling a “great guy” (‘cause “nice” sorts never hold bigoted views), who should be allowed to express what they glibly term “political views” isn’t honestly too shocking at this point, but nevertheless puts into sharp relief how prevalent the hand-wringing, the pathology of conflating “politics” with unvarnished racism, actually is .

“A political meeting” was, incidentally, how they got around having to refer to the actual Klan in the 1939 movie production of Gone with the Wind.

That some 80 years later, ‘moderates’ are using the same language to re-sanitise the “alt-right” should — as with the Charlottesville march of “very fine people” — probably raise more eyebrows than it does.

Sandgren is not the subject here, but the episode provides us a more instructive (and honest) backdrop for any talk of Isner/#josh and his compatriots’ political leanings: if commentators can barely begin to reckon with Sandgren’s far-right dalliances, how are we to imagine they’ll cast anything other than a superficial, sympathetic eye when the subject matter requires less PR ju-jitsu?

As might well be expected, dialogue on Isner, Harrison and others' espousing of their politics, whether getting rankled over Colin Kaepernick, or having trouble accepting systemic racism is even a thing, has been plagued with obfuscation, obvious bad faith, and — particularly amongst self-styled moderates — a kind of meandering delusion.

As we saw with the conflating of the “right wing” or “traditional” spheres with unreconstructed racism — and attempts to (selectively) purge politics from sport altogether — demagogues thrive on this kind of obscurantism.

So, for clarity’s sake, let’s just state upfront:

  1. That we’re not concerning ourselves here with their views on Obamacare, taxation, or even something as explosive as gun control (which, like everything, itself, has an overlapping history with race), nor — just as importantly—agitating for some liberal political monoculture.
  2. That public proclamations (on social media or elsewhere) from those with a platform, come with a greater degree of responsibility; and that freedom of speech has never entailed a freedom from scrutiny, nor from being judged (even unfairly) on your output.
  3. That everyone has a red line — even those that pretend otherwise. The “snowflakes" do, the #joshes of this world do, and Republicans sure as hell do.

That all this might seem obvious, is perhaps an indicator of how poorly constructed the terms of debate, often wilfully, are.

For many, and this gets to the nub of it, Isner and his compatriots’ support for Trump is that red line.

The arguments are by now familiar: whilst not every Trump supporter is racist, their voting in, and empowering of, that unabashed racism, turning up the heat on the most vulnerable, the already marginalised, is something that demands scrutiny/pushback, and can’t be neatly abstracted, as it so often is, into a more generalised “anti-globalist” or “blue collar” revolt.

Even where one is careful to empathise with “legitimate concerns” of a struggling cohort (in fact there’s plenty of evidence confirming racial and cultural resentment, rather than “jobs”, played a greater role in fuelling Trump support, and that the ‘working class’, if anything, seemed to favour Clinton), what of that other most affluent demographic that together with middle-income voters formed the bulk of (mostly Republican) Trump support?

Isner —by any reckoning — belongs to that more privileged set, but even were one somehow minded to explain way the myopia inherent in prioritising an exclusionary “politics” over consideration of its effects on minorities, that still leaves open the question of his platform — imbuing the Trump vote with an uplifting sheen of Americana, driving opinion on Black Lives Matter, and ‘sportswashing’ a dehumanising ethno-nationalism in a way that you can’t put a price on.

Isner’s stand on Kaepernick’s silent protest dates back to late 2016, and whilst not out-and-out barnstorming, was a firmly nailing of one’s colours to a political mast — he knows how well it will have resonated with Trump’s constituency.

Nor will it have taken long for other conservatives, sympathising ‘leaners’, not to mention everyday sports fans, to read this signalling as a wider discrediting of the entire Black Lives Matter movement, which some likely already viewed with suspicion — itself a reflection of the austere religiosity the flag, the anthem (and indeed guns), and their perceived ‘desecration’, inspire.

It seems to be lost on many that protest, silent or otherwise, is designed to elicit discomfort.

Twitter pile-ons are generally destructive and counterproductive, but “politics” has already entered the fray, and, unless the suggestion is that this is a one-way Isner-ian street, countering his sanitising and trend-setting effect, will inevitably involve the lowering of Isner’s stock.

One can, of course, opt-out of this altogether, and “just enjoy (or hate on) the tennis”, and I personally question the utility of preoccupying oneself with chasing after the tennis MAGA-crew on Twitter, but the idea that these episodes either shouldn’t colour our view of him, or he shouldn’t, as a public figure, be discussed in anything other than flattering terms is divorced from reality — particularly as we continue to live, and breath the effects of a Trump presidency.

Arguments for reaching out, education and empathy — “labelling voters racist will cause a doubling down” — though not without merit, have never, in any case, precluded these other more direct modes of resisting the normalising of attitudes #josh and the gang carry the banner for: “treading wisely” has never entailed the shirking of tough questions.

It also doesn’t feel coincidental that the staunchest critics of “calling out culture” tend to be those without skin in the game. Winning “hearts and minds” mightn’t be your foremost consideration were it your humanity being put up for question.

All of this has already been mulled over in one form or another since as far back as the primaries. No one’s breaking any new ground here.

It’s often more interesting, therefore, and specifically for our purposes, to explore why? Why, with everything that’s passed — with curated accounts of Trump’s misogyny, racism now needing their own rolling updates — the guiding ethos of many ‘moderates’ to placate and indemnify MAGA, should continue to override and supersede their every other instinct?

It should be stressed how atypical, how estranged from any historical norm, this defanging of ‘opposition’ is, as we often have very strong words for people we disagree with, even those whom we love — not all censure is a “pile-on” after all, and it seems to me to be a cop-out to group all censure under a “hatersgonnagate” rubric.

At its worst, this structural aversion to any scrutinising of the many elephants in the room (though none that come from “shithole countries”, of course), begins to sound like the preferred theories of that group of self-styled “realists” that posit “identity politics”, “calling out culture” (which, like everything, has its challenges & excesses) as a primary cause of Trump himself — an inversion of reality that typifies the lucrative op-ed contrarianism of our age.

Most often though, it takes the form of lesser smokescreens, reflecting an inner discord that plays out when faced with an electorate, pop culture staples — well-loved tennis players — that knowingly voted in a demagogue (whose racism, remember, wasn’t even dog whistled at times). Your faves are, as we know, problematic. And this time they’ve really broken things.

And that’s when #josh — the doppelgänger —comes into his own, operating in the shadowlands as a kind of Marvel superhero of abstraction and indirection:

  • “You don’t know Isner, or Harrison, only the persona”. (translation: you can never know #josh, and thus never pin him down to anything)
  • “Don’t hate the person, hate the view.” (#josh, and not centuries of culturally inherited pathologies, made him do it)
  • “Separate the art/performance from the performer.” (That’s just never been an all-encompassing edict. There’s sometimes strong reasons not to separate the two — Roseanne doesn’t even seem to want us to. Nor has enjoying Wagner, say, ever precluded the harshest of denunciations)
  • “We mustn’t be divisive.” (oh dear, we’re knee-deep now. Liberals wear this one like a talisman)

To which I’d also add “Russia/Cambridge Analytica hijacked our democracy” — the attributing of an almost spiritualised sense of omnipotence to Putin, Facebook is, again, primarily about comfort. If voters were “duped”, after all, then not only are they absolved of any responsibility, but Trump is an aberration, entirely unreflective of voters’ prejudices, illegitimate, illegal even.

My personal favourite, though, is the claim that Trump is “mentally unfit”, because he’s a narcissist, and, uh, lies a lot (because political leadership’s just neeeever historically served up lying narcissists before).

Treading wisely is fine, but what we’re seeing goes way beyond adherence to a creed of empathy and complex human relations, and is a pathology unto itself.

The object of this collective denialism isn’t merely to shield Isner, but to render him so abstract an entity, that the merest idea of pushback, much less censure or accountability, is impotent on arrival. A feat to rival Putin’s informational fog of war.

#josh has, thus, become something of a sanctuary. A safe-space where many of our prominent analysts get to grandstand, rationalise away, and think freely about Trump without ever once having to take stock of race, or history.

Ultimately, we need to be open to the possibility that some parts of #josh, whilst hopefully still redeemable, just aren’t that great, the product of the very same ‘culturally inherited pathologies’ we love to dissect in black and brown people, and that our interests as a society may be better served by pointing that out. “HatersGonnaHate”, is a cop-out.

Maybe it’s what #josh reflects back at us that’s so frightening. Maybe the fear and, indeed, loathing that inspires isn’t such a bad thing .