MELBOURNE, Australia — Australia has conferred one of its highest civilian honors upon former prime ministers, elite athletes, philanthropists, actors and academics for “the highest degree in service to Australia or humanity at large.”
But when news broke on Friday that the public service award would be handed next week to the tennis legend Margaret Court, whose sporting legacy has been marred by her vocal homophobia and opposition to same-sex marriage, it sparked outrage in many corners of the country.
Condemnation poured out from Australia’s political opposition, with Daniel Andrews, the premier of the state of Victoria and a member of the Labor Party, asking at a news conference why her views, “which are disgraceful, hurtful and cost lives, should be honored.”
Nick McKim, leader of the progressive Greens party, said in an email, “Margaret Court has spent more of her life campaigning against marriage equality than she ever spent on the tennis courts.” He added that the award was “a disgraceful insult to everyone Margaret Court has harmed by voicing support for apartheid and her decades-long campaign against L.G.B.T.I.Q.+ rights.”
Ms. Court did not immediately respond to a phone call seeking comment. She told a local TV station that she had “never had anyone out in the community come to me and say, ‘Well we don’t like you,’ ‘we don’t like your beliefs’ or anything else. I’ve had thousands come up to me and tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘Thank you.’”
Asked about Mr. Andrews’s comments, she said, “Well, I’ll call him blessed.”
Ms. Court is scheduled to be awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia on Tuesday, Australia Day, for her service as a tennis player and as a mentor to young athletes. The honor falls under the Order of Australia, which confers public recognition for “outstanding achievement and service.”
Nominations are made by an independent council and approved by the governor general. Hundreds of Australians receive the Order of Australia every year, and it has four tiers. The Companion award is the highest tier, and it is bestowed on only a handful of people each year. In 2020, just five people received it.
Ms. Court, 78, was named an Officer of the Order of Australia — the second-highest tier — in 2007 for her unparalleled achievements in tennis.
As Australia’s most successful female tennis player, she has 64 majors titles across singles, doubles and mixed doubles categories. She is a 24-time Grand Slam singles winner, a record that no male or female player has been able to beat. Serena Williams is next in line, one Grand Slam title away.
Since retiring, Ms. Court’s legacy has been increasingly overshadowed by her intolerant views, and she has alienated many in the tennis world. In 1991, she said that lesbianism had ruined women’s tennis. A Pentecostal minister, she has vocally opposed same-sex marriage, compared L.G.B.T.Q. education to the work of the devil and denounced transgender athletes.
There are ongoing calls to strip Ms. Court’s name from Melbourne Park’s second-biggest stadium, which was named after her in 2003 and is one of the sites of the Australian Open, set to begin next month. Referring to the annual eruptions of anger surrounding Ms. Court, Mr. Andrews, the premier of Victoria, said, “Do we really have to do this every single summer?”
Tennis Australia, the country’s governing body for the sport, has resisted pressure to rename the stadium while seeking to distance itself from Ms. Court. Last year, when it recognized the 50th anniversary of her 1970 Grand Slam, it put out a disclaimer: “Tennis Australia does not agree with Court’s personal views, which have demeaned and hurt many in our community over a number of years.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, when asked about the new award at a news conference on Friday, said he could not comment, given that the recipients had not been publicly announced. (The news about Ms. Court has been circulating online.) He added that they had been chosen via an “independent set of processes” and that the system “recognizes Australians from right across the full spectrum of achievement in this country.”
Last year, the Order of Australia awards were overshadowed by controversy around one recipient, Bettina Arndt, a vocal campaigner against what she describes as the “demonization of men in our society.” Ms. Arndt was widely condemned for praising a police officer for “keeping an open mind” about whether a man accused of murdering his wife and children had been “driven too far.”
Following that public backlash, the Council for the Order of Australia released a statement noting that its recommendations “are not an endorsement of the political, religious or social views of recipients, nor is conferral of an honor an endorsement of the personally held beliefs of recipients.”
It added, “In a system that recognizes hundreds of people each year, it is inevitable that each list will include some people who others believe should not be recognized.”