In tennis, the post-match handshake between players at the net has long been part of the game’s tradition. And, in a sport where decorum and respectability are historical features of the game, basic etiquette carries near-sacred significance. That’s why a spat between two players at this year’s Wimbledon has generated considerable buzz in the world of sports, all to do with the simple gesture—of lack thereof. In London on Sunday, Ukrainian player Elina Svitolina and Belarusian player Victoria Azarenka shirked tennis code by waiving the customary handshake. For months, Svitolina and others have been forgoing the gesture in protest over Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
On its face, the situation seems trifling. (It’s just a handshake, right?) But the feud between the two players tells a complicated story—one that raises thorny ethical questions about the role of sport in society and beyond, says Rory Smead, associate professor of philosophy and the Ronald L. and Linda A. Rossetti Professor for the Humanities at Northeastern, who researches social conventions and ethical behavior.
“First, this is not a new phenomenon with respect to sports and politics—that is, conflict between the ethical norms of the sport and broader ethical and political contexts in which it is being played,” Smead says.