Stop overreacting to Ilie Nastase’s joke

Courtney Hamilton

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He was the bane of the All England Lawn Tennis Association, for his on-court stalling tactics, off-court antics, and general all-round belligerent behaviour. For decades, there was very little the top brass at Wimbledon, or the International Tennis Association (ITA), could do to tame the infamous ‘Nasty’ Ilie Nastase. From the blue, hard courts of New York’s Flushing Meadows to the red clay of Roland Garros in Paris, it seemed no one could fix his bad-boy reputation. But now, they might finally have succeeded.

Today’s highly sensitive, illiberal and censorious ‘anti-racism’ appears to have succeeded where the tennis establishment failed in bringing this great nonconformist, and sporting hero, to heel. What was Nastase’s hideous crime? To make a fairly naff joke about tennis star Serena Williams’ pregnancy. ‘Let’s see what colour it has – chocolate with milk?’, he said in Romanian. Little did he know his ‘spontaneous’ remarks would see him judged and condemned by an increasingly intolerant form of ‘anti-racism’.

According to the Guardian, Nastase is guilty of ‘racially abusing’ Williams and her unborn baby. The Times’ tennis correspondent says he is a ‘disgrace’, his comment beyond the pale and ‘unacceptable’. Britain’s (worst ever) former No1 tennis player, Tim Henman, said Nastase’s racial slur was ‘indefensible’.

Despite being American – where freedom of speech is enshrined in the Constitution – Williams herself responded with a call for censorship. ‘It disappoints me to know we live in a society where people like Ilie Nastase can make such racist comments’, she said. One can see why Williams was offended, but does she really find it ‘disappointing’ that we live in a society in which people can say what they want, even if it’s a silly joke.

Others also piled in. Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton agreed with Williams: ‘I thought it was beautiful what she wrote. What she’s written just inspires me and hopefully inspires others.’ What part of Williams’ statement is inspiring? The suggestion that we should clamp down on people’s ability to speak freely? Yes, Nastase’s comments were crude, but to accuse him of being racist is to blow his joke way out of proportion. Now, the International Tennis Federation has launched an investigation into Nastase, stating it will not ‘tolerate discriminatory and offensive language’. This is out of control.

The fact that free speech is being investigated is far more worrying than the ramblings of a 70-year-old man. Punishing Nastase will do nothing to protect black and minority ethnic groups from racial discrimination and abuse. All this investigation will do is add to an already censorious climate where people are afraid to speak for fear of being labelled a racist.

Nastase is no racist. I agree with what the late Arthur Ashe — tennis superstar and writer — once said about Nastase, long before Williams was born. Nastase once called Ashe a ‘nigger’ on court, but Ashe said he didn’t ‘mean it as the vile racial epithet it sounds’. No matter what someone says, censorship is never the answer. The global ridicule of Nastase, who has now been disinvited from the Royal Box at this year’s Wimbledon, is a wild overreaction that will further chill joke-making in sport.

Courtney Hamilton is a writer based in London.

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