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Can Roger Federer Beat Greta?

How much more is there to say in praise of Swiss icon Roger Federer? Biggest winner in tennis history with 20 Grand Slam titles; Olympic medallist and Davis Cup victor; often called the greatest player of all time (GOAT); devoted father and husband; elegant on and off the court and one the most admired athletes in the world. At 38 years-old he continues to amaze with two come-from-behind victories in the recent Australian Open at the twilight of his career.

And yet, his Swiss perfection has been called into question. His sponsorship deal with Credit Suisse, which has considerable loans to fossil-fuel industries, has been challenged by Swiss activists who held protest “tennis matches” inside Credit Suisse branches around Switzerland.

Environmental leader Greta Thunberg retweeted this post from 350org.Europe:

“Since 2016@CreditSuisse has provided $57 BILLION to companies looking for new fossil fuel deposits – something that is utterly incompatible with #ClimateAction @RogerFederer do you endorse this?”

“I appreciate reminders of my responsibility as a private individual, as an athlete and as an entrepreneur, and I’m committed to using this privileged position to dialogue on important issues with my sponsors,” Federer responded in justifying his support of Credit Suisse. “I take the impacts and threat of climate change very seriously, particularly as my family and I arrive in Australia amidst devastation from the bush fires,” he said in a statement when he landed in Melbourne for the Australian Open. He participated in a charity event Rally for Relief with other top players before the beginning of the tournament.

What are the responsibilities of top athletes and other public figures towards climate change or other political issues? We know the American football star Colin Kaepernick has been blackballed from playing in the National Football League and lost sponsors because he knelt on the field during the playing of the national anthem. We know that conservative television host Laura Ingraham shamelessly rebuked basketball star LeBron James for making political comments. She said: “It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball. Keep the political comments to yourselves…Shut up and dribble.”

“Shut up and dribble”? As if we should say to Federer “Keep serving, keep winning, and keep sponsors like Credit Suisse and Mercedes Benz.” Do athletes have the right to privacy in their political views and sponsorships? Do we the fans have a right to worship them when they are on the court and winning and then criticize them for what they do off the court?

The MeToo movement is instructive here. We have more information today about what goes on behind the scenes. The public has become less tolerant of undignified behavior. The line between the public and private has become less rigid. And we expect more from public figures and those in positions of power.

Should this include sponsors as well? Federer said: “I appreciate reminders of my responsibility as a private individual, as an athlete and as an entrepreneur, and I’m committed to using this privileged position to dialogue on important issues with my sponsors.” He has a “privileged position.” How should he use it? Should every athlete or person in a privileged position question what sponsors do or take political positions like LeBron James about racism? Several important basketball players wound up playing in Switzerland because they were blackballed from playing in the United States for their political positions. How much individual freedom do public figures have?

To return to Roger: We know the Roger Federer Foundation engages in education programs for children living in poverty in Africa and Switzerland. But what about his sponsors like Credit Suisse, Mercedes Benz or the Japanese apparel company that dresses him? Roger said he will “dialogue on important issues with my sponsors.” Good. But what will be the results of that dialogue? We hope it will be more successful than his disappointing semi-final loss to Novak Djokovic in Australia.

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Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.

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