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The blame game: University sport ethics expert on the Novak Djokovic saga

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Published on 07 January 2022

Tennis court
Tennis court

Men's tennis number one Novak Djokovic has been deported from Australia after federal judges ruled the government was acting reasonably when it revoked his visa.

The decision shatters the Serbian star's hopes of playing in the Australian Open, which starts tomorrow (Monday, January 17th). He also faces a possible three-year ban on returning to Australia. 

Djokovic won an appeal last week to prevent deportation after officials cancelled his visa in a row over his right to remain in the country unvaccinated against COVID-19. 

The 34-year-old's visa was then revoked for a second time on Friday (January 14th) by the Immigration Minister, Alex Hawke, who claimed Djokovic's presence in the country was a threat to public health and risked fanning anti-vaccine sentiment. 

In a statement, Djokovic said he was "extremely disappointed" but respects the ruling. 

Dr Paul Davis is an expert in sport ethics at the University of Sunderland and argues we should focus less on the public outcry and Djokovic’s personal beliefs on vaccinations and more on the process that has led to this outcome.

“The question of process must be sharply disaggregated from the credentials of the current decision to cancel Djokovic’s visa,” Dr Davis said.

“The sequence of events is undeniably a disjointed mess. The Victorian government, ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immigration) and the national government in the shape of the Australian Border Force have not acted in a joined-up manner. Should this happen in Britain, many seasoned natives would trumpet it as the latest illustration of slapstick British bureaucracy.

“Djokovic seems to have a legitimate complaint about the process to which he has been subject, and a thorough review of procedures is surely required. If the current decision stands, compensation to Djokovic is also a plausible expectation.

“However, these inconvenient truths are irrelevant to whether the current decision is correct. If, for instance, the Australian Border Force are to be the final arbiters of who is granted a medical exemption from vaccination requirements, and they conclude (guided by ATAGI’s ‘blind’ panel) that Djokovic should not be granted an exemption, then Djokovic should not be granted an exemption. While procedures need to be clear, they must naturally be applied consistently and with accuracy.”

Dr Davis added: “At the same time, dangers are present in cases such as this. Governments zealous to confirm equality before the law might be improperly motivated, courting precipitate decisions and unhelpfully populist pronouncements. Without knowing the details of Djokovic’s exemption application, it is not possible to know if this could be the case here.

“And in the case of a controversial figure such as Djokovic, the reactions of individuals, including journalists, deriving pleasure from Djokovic’s misfortunes could distort judgement about the case at issue.”