Why Roger Federer’s Statement to Greta Thunberg’s Climate Change Criticism is Not Enough


Why Roger Federer’s Statement to Greta Thunberg’s Climate Change Criticism is Not Enough

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

In the social media age, we’ve learned that not all cries of indignation are created equal. Sure they all produce noise, and yes they all capture attention, but some are louder and more impactful than others, especially if made by people of interest and influence.

Greta Thunberg and Roger Federer are certainly people of interest and influence. So, when Thunberg retweeted a post suggesting Federer was in the wrong for being a Credit Suisse brand ambassador, a significant portion of the tennis world was forced to reevaluate what it means for a star athlete to endorse a brand. Thunberg’s retweet soon turned into a collective cry of outrage, but the lack of (immediate) response from Federer was no less conspicuous. They were both deafening, but for entirely different reasons.Here’s some context: During the period 2016 to 2018, Credit Suisse reportedly invested US$57 billion in fossil fuel exploration, and earned the ire of climate change activists. To remind the world — and Federer — about the damage the company was doing, a group of students dressed up in whites and orchestrated tennis matches in the Credit Suisse premises at Lausanne and Geneva. That was back in 2018, but the message was as clear then as it is now: Federer, as a global role model, needed to take stock of his sponsorship deals, and stop endorsing companies that were actively corroding the environment.

Federer himself has been a largely silent spectator. Until the 350.org Twitter handle pointedly asked how he could in good conscience endorse the activities of Credit Suisse (subsequently re-tweeted by Thunberg), not many even knew about his connection to the issue. It took two days of the hashtag #RogerWakeUpNow to trend on Twitter before the Swiss issued a statement in response — a diplomatic and non-committal statement, but a statement regardless.

Federer’s deal with Credit Suisse is not a “hidden” one; we’ve known about his association with the finance company for years.

“As the father of four young children and a fervent supporter of universal education, I have a great deal of respect and admiration for the youth climate movement, and I am grateful to young climate activists for pushing us all to examine our behaviors and act on innovative solutions,” Federer said. “We owe it to them and ourselves to listen. I appreciate reminders of responsibility as a private individual, as an athlete, and as an entrepreneur, and I’m committed to using this privileged position to dialogue on important issues with my sponsors.”

The reference to Thunberg with the words “young climate activists” is unmistakable, but there’s very little substance in the statement otherwise. Anyone reading it would assume it was hastily cobbled together by Federer’s PR team, and they would probably be right. But would they also be right to expect Federer to put his earnings in jeopardy and publicly lambast Credit Suisse’s activities?

It’s a question that’s not asked too often, and it is easy to see why. It’s fun to extol Federer for putting tennis on the map, but can you imagine how much of a social pariah you’ll be if you spend all your parties talking about the ugly compromises Federer makes to be who he is? Federer being among the world’s highest-paid and most-loved sports personalities in the world is an exciting topic to discuss; the hidden deals he makes behind the scenes considerably less so.

However, Federer’s deal with Credit Suisse is not a “hidden” one; we’ve known about his association with the finance company for years. Moreover, Federer is not alone when it comes to endorsing dubious organisations. Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have been brand ambassadors of Kia Motors and Peugeot respectively, and the automobile industry is directly responsible for more environmental damage than perhaps any other industry.

And let’s not even get into athletes endorsing brands like Monster Energy (which has been proven to have negative health effects), ExxonMobil (a climate change denying behemoth), Burger King (no explanation needed) and most ironically of all, Nike (who reportedly run exploitative sweat-shops in Thailand and Sri Lanka). But perhaps the better question is this: Doesn’t practically every organisation we personally deal with in our daily life, have some kind of dodgy humanitarian track record?

Some war cries are louder than others, and a war cry from Federer would probably be the loudest of them all.

A common defence when faced with such questions is that we are ordinary people who are not considered role models by anyone. Humans hold their sporting heroes to a higher standard than themselves, and that’s usually a good enough excuse to explain away their shortcomings.

It’s an unfair expectation, but also an inevitable one. The price that celebrities pay for their fame is not just the compromises they have to make with their integrity; they also have to put up the appearance that they are not making any compromises. But people like Federer possess the means to make a real, tangible difference by doing away with a couple of compromises. Is it too selfish on our part to ask that they make use of those means, no matter how much it may cost?

Now Federer is actually someone who has gone out of his way in the past to do his bit for humanitarian causes. The Roger Federer Foundation has helped over one million underprivileged kids across the world get access to education (ironically, Credit Suisse themselves pump in a million dollars every year to the organisation). Moreover, Federer often plays exhibition matches for charity, which is perhaps the best way tennis can contribute to society — nothing in the sport generates as much revenue as a Federer match.

But Federer has powers that extend beyond the tennis court — a universally loved and recognised voice. When Federer says something, people listen.

With great power comes great responsibility, as the cliché goes, but Federer also has a great opportunity here. He has the chance to create a legacy that far outstrips that of any other athlete in recent memory, and all it would take is a forceful statement demanding change. Yes he could possibly lose his contract with the company, but the awareness he would create in the process would more than compensate for that in both value and impact.

In other words, Federer has the opportunity to make Greta Thunberg proud. And that is possibly the hardest thing in the world to do right now, as many global leaders would readily attest.

Some war cries are louder than others, and a war cry from Federer would probably be the loudest of them all. He wouldn’t be a villain if he chose to remain silent on this issue. But if he decided to make his voice heard, he’d turn into something more than just a hero.