Sports Law Blog
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Saturday, February 21, 2009
WTA Fines Dubai Tournament for Ban on Israeli Player
It is a truism that sports and politics should not mix. It is an equal truism that they do. The question is in the justification. Nations have boycotted the Olympics and the Olympics have boycotted nations, such as Apartheid-era South Africa. Numerous debates as to the wisdom of boycotts and their effect on sports have gone on for years.
But sometimes there comes a political act that is so wrongheaded that it is difficult to come up any justification for it -- except obvious discrimination. Such a decision came last week when Israeli tennis professional Shahar Peer was barred from competing at a WTA-sanctioned event in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The Dubai Championship, with millions in prize money, is an attempt by the country and its rulers to create an attractive venue for premier sporting events. Touting itself as a welcoming place for people all of the world, the UAE's rulers wish to create a friendly, tolerant place for sports to flourish. Friendly and tolerant to all, except, apparently Israeli citizens.
The recent war in Gaza was the pretext for the government's actions. The organizers said that they feared fan anger over Israel's actions because the anger would spill into riots if Peer were to play. In fact, these have been tough times for Israeli athletes. An Israeli basketball team was chased off the court during a game in Turkey and the players were attacked with bottles thrown from some "Pro-Gaza" demonstrators. (Incidentally, Turkey was given credit for a "victory"). An upcoming Davis Cup match in Sweden will be played without fans because of threats.
The Sony Ericsson WTA sanctions the Dubai event and the organization initially criticized the action, but did not take any action until today. In a statement posted on their website, the Tour's board, after criticizing the UAE's action as "unjust discrimination," announced the following actions:
According to the WTA, the $300,000 fine represents the highest fine ever levied against a Tour member and proceeds will be used to compensate Peer and Groenefeld.
In the wake of this criticism, the UAE decided to grant a visa to Israeli men's player Andy Ram for an upcoming tournament after the men's counterpart, the ATP had warned that future events could be in jeopardy if Ram wasn't allowed to enter.
The WTA's actions are a justified moral response to the UAE's actions and also a good example of governance control. The organization -- like the ATP -- is not a sports league in the traditional sense, but an organization representing individual players which sanctions tournaments and set forth conditions for their players. It has a detailed structure -- with more than 400 pages of organizational materials, rules and regulations.
Some would argue that the actions do not go far enough. The fine may be a drop in the bucket for the UAE and this year's tournament took place without Peer. Although some wanted the WTA to stop its sponsorship of this year's event, that would have been impractical because of the last-minute nature of the visa rejection. After being assured of a visa, Peer was about to leave to Dubai from Thailand, when she was denied entry to the country. The other players were already there, so the tournament went on. That makes their action more egregious, and the WTA at the very least put the tournament's organizers on notice.