As bushfires devastate Australia, players need to focus on action not reaction

The last time I used a pay phone was Sept. 11, 2001, on the corner of 49th Street and 10th Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, New York City. By the time I picked up the receiver, both towers of the World Trade Center had been destroyed. The country was at war, even if it couldn't quite pinpoint against whom. Cellphone signals were flooded. It was virtually impossible to make a successful phone call. As the country came apart, and the symbols of Western empire smoldered, the old technology, ridiculed and antiquated, held together. It was still reliable. It could be counted on.

I called my office, and as first responders walked past, faces distant and weathered, bodies and boots caked in ash, my editors issued instructions: Go to Ground Zero. Get what you can. Add to the coverage. Check in on your beat, which at the time was the New York Yankees. Over the next several days and weeks, the city's sports teams paused play and assumed their positions and mobilized in the midst of the disaster. The New York Mets set up relief stations in the Shea Stadium parking lot. The Yankees visited hospitals and shelters and firehouses. The homeless and the traumatized, looking for their missing, grieving their dead, eventually turned to the players, to Derek Jeter and Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams and Mariano Rivera, to provide them the necessary diversion of joy -- to return to the field and play ball. The rest of the nation's sports teams took similar actions, participating, they told us and we told ourselves, in the healing of a city and a country.

Sports as unifying force, as tourniquet and healer, is a narrative that long predated 9/11 but has since been perfected following dozens of subsequent disasters, from earthquakes and hurricanes to the Boston Marathon bombing. Appropriate or not, the narrative has been typecast to return us to normalcy, with athletes' on-field strength infusing us, teams and players arm-in-arm with law enforcement, mayors and governors. They are the ambassadors whose very presence tells you we will rebuild, that everything will be all right. Like the pay phone, the old tech, the athletes are expected to be there for us, to steady us, to be able to be counted on.

For the past several months, bushfires have raged throughout the eastern coast of Australia. More than two dozen people have died to date. In its foreground, the 2020 tennis season begins, culminating with the first major tournament of the year, the Australian Open in Melbourne, which begins Monday. Players in warm-up tournaments in New Zealand and in the Australian cities of Adelaide, Brisbane, Hobart and Sydney, as well as the Open qualifying rounds in Melbourne, have felt the effects of the fires. Australian Bernard Tomic said he could not breathe during his match. Canadian Genie Bouchard required a medical timeout after complaining of chest pains during her qualifying match against Xiaodi You. Maria Sharapova and Laura Siegemund called off their tune-up exhibition at the Kooyong Classic as smoke from the bushfires smothered Melbourne. An on-court coughing fit forced Dalila Jakupovic to her knees and then to forfeit her match against Stefanie Voegele. While the fires decimate the country and players voice their concerns that conditions are unsafe and perhaps the tournament should be postponed, Tennis Australia, the governing body of the sport in the country, has said little of substance to address the effects of the fires on player safety, or the ethics and morality of hosting a multimillion-dollar spectacle as the country literally burns. Health officials have graded the air quality as "unhealthy." Even through the smoke, it appears the show must go on.

The superstars, knowing their place despite the growing voices of dissent within their own ranks, assured tennis authorities and the public at large they could still be counted on, that they would trust authority instead of challenge it. Days before the Australian Open began, the biggest names in tennis -- Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka and Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Coco Gauff, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Nick Kyrgios -- upheld this custom by playing an exhibition to raise money for disaster relief. Kyrgios' social media presence played a major role in Tennis Australia creating the event. During the evening, rescue personnel took the court and hit with legends of the game. Individually, players such as Serena Williams have announced they would donate their winnings to the relief effort. Others, such as Gauff and Kyrgios, took another traditional route, the in-game incentive, by pledging a specified dollar amount for every ace they hit during the tournament. Gauff is donating $200 per ace for her tournaments in Auckland, New Zealand, and the Australian Open; Kyrgios, $200 as well for his tournaments. Federer and Nadal pledged $250,000 each during the emergency. The benefit exhibition raised nearly $3.5 million.

It is increasingly difficult, indeed if it was ever truly possible, to be simultaneously impactful and inoffensive, yet this tightrope has long been the athlete's domain, and the dynamic is playing itself out at an apocalyptic level in Australia. There is something tone-deaf about playing tennis in a country on fire, even more so when the athletes themselves complain they cannot breathe, but their presence -- especially during disaster -- has long been positioned as an asset. It might not be.

For decades, sports has negotiated this incompatibility by positioning its teams, leagues and athletes as neutral, nonpartisan humanitarians. Environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert reported in The New Yorker magazine that plumes of smoke have risen 9 miles in the air. Millions of acres have been destroyed, flora and fauna and habitat threatened. Each year, as the planet has warmed, America has seen fires in the West, in California and the Southwest, grow more deadly, more dangerous and more expensive. According to the U.S. Forest Service, the average temperature within the United States is expected to increase between 3 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century. In the East, as sea levels rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rainfall becomes lethal as it increases flooding risks, and hurricane strength and storm surge intensify. The South and East Coast and Caribbean have suffered the devastating effects of hurricanes almost annually since Katrina in August 2005. In Miami, disaster is no longer a requirement for danger. As average sea levels rise, the National Weather Service reports Miami Beach is increasingly threatened by "sunny day flooding."

Fire season in Australia happens every year during the summer, when hot, dry conditions can fuel flames. Bushfires, whether sparked by lightning or an unfortunate camping mishap, are growing more frequent and intense, experts say, as a result of a hotter planet -- the bill coming due for humankind's growth and waste and insufficient political policy. Both the Australian government and the United States under the Trump administration, which withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change and rolled back Obama-era climate change initiatives, have been hostile toward any type of greenhouse emissions control.

When they raise money, athletes can appear engaged with everyday people and their caring for the planet. They can maintain their historical place in the narrative as aiding in the healing, the force for good without being offensive. They can be seen as doing something. They can be counted on, also, to be allies for the needs of elected officials rather than as critics who call them out. But as the stakes rise, their assigned position feels less and less the correct one.

Canadian Brayden Schnur, world No. 103 on the ATP Tour, criticized Nadal and Federer, the two most prominent players on the tour who haven't yet played a competitive match in the conditions, for not protesting playing conditions on behalf of their lesser-known peers. "It's got to come from the top guys," he said. "Roger and Rafa are a little bit selfish in thinking about themselves and their careers, because they're near the end and all they're thinking about is their legacy, and they're not thinking about the sport itself and trying to do what's good for the sport. So those guys need to step up."

This country and its punditry lauded Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt for leading efforts to raise more than $40 million after the Category 4 Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and Louisiana and demolished Houston in 2017. When Hurricane Maria, a Category 5, ripped through the Caribbean a month later, its worst damage inflicted on Puerto Rico, the Major League Baseball Players Association mobilized along humanitarian lines to raise money for relief. Baseball also staged a benefit game to raise money for the victims.

The professional athlete as neutral humanitarian is a failing approach. The times, especially in regard to climate change, are too desperate for players to be comfortable aiding relief efforts without adding their voices in the fight for more effective policies. The wound is larger than the bandage, and despite the force for good narrative, there is something unethical about arriving only after the village has been destroyed.

By focusing on raising money after disasters have struck while being silent before, the players are indirectly taking the easy way out -- appearing to be part of the solution while protecting their lane of being inoffensive. For some, it is a sly mechanism to give to the humanitarian cause because, in some cases, their personal politics are contributing to the global catastrophe. Certainly, there is value in Watt raising $40 million to help people, but while sports are applauded by the public and positioned as a force for good, some players as well as some league officials and team owners prominently favor politicians whose policies contribute to rising temperatures and threaten the planet. Sports in turn receive an odd and undeserved dispensation, celebrated for their post-disaster contributions while also, in many cases, killing the planet at the ballot box. It is also mitigated by the paternalistic reality of the equation: Players are applauded for raising money for disaster relief but many don't dare lend their voices to preventing one. Certainly Federer and Nadal strive to be positive influences on the tour and the sport, but the value of their $500,000 donation is undermined by their silence to Tennis Australia, where players without such high profiles need their star power.

And this -- to risk being offensive, to not always be the one who can be counted on as an ally, to accept the challenge of periodically being in opposition to the power -- is what the athlete has been conditioned to fear. Raising money after the fact is the safe route, for advocating a position transfers them from a neutral space into a political one. As conditions deteriorate and Tennis Australia says little to address players' concerns, two players, Alize Cornet of France and Canada's Vasek Pospisil, have reintroduced the call for a tennis union. The less-accomplished players, it should be noted, also have more power than they think in banding together, for they could take the bold risk of not playing to force the sport and its legends to listen. To have a two-week tournament, the greats, after all, must play someone.

The players are part of the environmental problem. They fly hundreds of thousands of miles internationally on private jets, and their carbon footprints contribute to both the disasters for which they raise money and the environmental issues that require their advocacy. This conflict, however, should not reduce them to inertia, but motivate them to think critically about their own personal impact on the environment.

With a unified front of players choosing to be personally responsible, publicly vocal and politically proactive instead of waiting for the next disaster before taking out the checkbook, the optics would change, as would their relationships to power. Players would enter a new space, less comfortable to a public and the governing bodies that expect their neutral docility, but in return for stepping out of their lane, their presence would be far more impactful. They would not lose, but rather gain, able to provide joy and normalcy to the public while demanding action from the power. As the Australian Open tournament continues and the air quality worsens, it becomes increasingly clear that the players, struggling to achieve the basic feat of hitting a forehand and simultaneously taking a good, clean breath, have very little choice. Just like the rest of us.