Jimmy Connors Shouldn't Be Talking About Chris Evert's Abortion

The retired tennis star contributes to the idea that women who've had abortions ought to be ashamed.

AP Images

Chris Evert is one of the most successful female stars in the history of United States tennis. She won 18 Grand Slam championships, including seven French Open titles (a feat only matched by male tennis player Rafael Nadal last year) and six U.S. Open titles. Beginning in 1974, she finished ranked #1 in the world seven times (the only year between 1974 and 1981 when she dipped was in 1979). In 1976, she was the first solo woman to ever be chosen "Sportswoman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated. Overall, her career winning percentage was just over 90 percent, an almost impossible record that has never beaten by any other player, male or female.

She now runs a tennis academy in Florida and is a commentator for ESPN for the four tennis grand slam championships. And it is normally around some kind of commentary that she makes news these days, but mainly only within the tennis-watching community. But Jimmy Connors, a former romantic partner and himself a retired successful U.S. tennis player, has thrust Evert into the national spotlight recently against her will.

In 1974, while dating, Evert and Connors both won their respective singles championship at Wimbledon. As Sports Illustrated reported at the time, "For the first time in memory, the traditional opening dance at Saturday night's Wimbledon Ball was reserved for two singles champions who were sweethearts as well—Chris Evert, 19, and her mop-topped fiance, Jimmy Connors, 21." In typical sports-pun fashion, they were dubbed the "Love Double" and "Love Match" by tabloids. Their wedding that was scheduled for November of that year never happened, and their relationship ended. Neither one of them ever explained what caused it to disintegrate so quickly. They would be on-and-off for the next few years. They both married other people in 1979.

But now, 35 years later, Connors is releasing a biography this week titled The Outsider, in which he strongly hints that during their whirlwind affair in 1974, Evert got pregnant and had an abortion. He says that she did so without allowing him to be part of the decision-making, though he states that he "was perfectly happy to let nature take its course and accept responsibility for what was to come." He bitterly writes to Evert in the book, "Well, thanks for letting me know. Since I don't have a say in the matter, I guess I am just here to help."

Connors also implies that this was the reason their quick affair ended before their wedding. "It was a horrible feeling, but I knew it was over. Getting married wasn't going to be good for either of us."

Evert responded quickly by releasing a statement to Reuters through her agent last weekend:
In his book, Jimmy Connors has written about a time in our relationship that was very personal and emotionally painful. I am extremely disappointed that he used the book to misrepresent a private matter that took place 40 years ago and made it public, without my knowledge. I hope everyone can understand that I have no further comment.
Despite this emotional response from Evert, Connors has decided to go forward with publicizing the book by talking about this episode (not that he has a reputation for being a nice guy) and media outlets continue to push this one particular story from the book. For example, on this past Friday night's episode of Rock Center, when Harry Smith directly asked Connors about Evert's abortion, Connors responded, "well, that was a certainly a decision that needed to be made. To face that together and to go through that together was a necessity." Smith then read Evert's statement in full before moving on to talk to Connor's wife about his public infidelity during their decades-long marriage. The article on NBC's site that that teased the episode was titled, "Jimmy Connors on memoir that makes Evert abortion claim". Connors also visited The Today Show on Friday morning to talk Evert's abortion. Kathy Lee Gifford at least asked Connors if he had sought Evert's permission before he wrote about her story. Connors told her, "I talked to her after. You know, when things were starting to come out.... I can understand her disappointment and the way she feels but, you know, it was the way I saw things."

But no matter how Connors justifies this to himself or the public at large, Chris Evert's abortion was simply not his story to tell.

Evert has chosen to be open about specific hard times in her personal life. In August 2011, she gave a revealing interview to Elle Magazine. She talked about how when her marriage to British tennis player John Lloyd ended after ten years of marriage, her parents were very sad. "My mom wrote me a letter. My dad didn't talk to me for a while." Following her divorce from her Olympic skier Andy Mills after 18 years of marriage, she quickly married his friend, world-famous golfer Greg Norman. Of those choices, she said, "I broke a lot of hearts. I broke Andy's heart and I broke my kids' hearts." And after her marriage to Norman ended after 15 months and a ton of publicity, she admitted, "my conscience and my guilt and my grief kicked in. I was a little bit a mess then." But she has never chosen to speak about her relationship with Connors or the reason that it ended.

There's probably a good reason for that.

In our country, despite Roe v. Wade, there is an incredible amount of political and religious debate around this particular medical procedure. Due to debates around personhood, when life begins, and women's right to their bodily autonomy, abortion is a personal decision that is both constantly politicized and discussed in terms of the morality of the person who chooses to get an abortion.

One in three women in the United States will have an abortion in her lifetime, and yet there is a feeling in our country that those who have abortions should feel bad about it. Anti-abortion activists talk about abortion as "murder" and they claim that there is something called "post-abortion syndrome" (there is no scientific evidence that this syndrome exists). In reality, this kind of language does not stop people from getting abortions. It has only served to create a climate in which there is a stigma around abortion that makes people keep it secret.

Sociologist Erving Goffman argued in his book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity that this moralizing around abortion causes those who have an abortion to be seen not as "a whole and usual person" but rather "a tainted and discounted one." Steph Herold, an abortion stigma researcher, says that people who have had an abortion face "prejudicial attitudes" and the negative effects can be wide-ranging: "Evidence tells us that stigma has negative impacts on physical, mental, and emotional health, negatively affects relationships, silences certain experiences contributes to social conflict, entrenchment, and polarization, and stymies efforts to improve public health."

Exhale Pro-Voice, an organization that helps people after they have an abortion and documents people's abortion stories (both privately and publicly), has published "A Storysharing Guide for Ethical Advocates" on how to tell someone else's abortion story. The very first item on their list of how to do ethical storysharing is to "gain informed consent" from the person whose story you are going to tell. And you do so because the results of telling one's abortion story can be very hard and they should have a hand in deciding if they want their story out in the open. "People who experience stigma can feel alone and isolated," the guide states, "and they will often keep their feelings, stories, and experiences to themselves, rather than risk judgment or criticism." Renee Bracey Sherman, an abortion access activist, who has told her abortion story in very public venues including the BBC, says the result of putting herself out there has sometimes been negative, especially from people who oppose abortion: "I have had anti-abortion protestors invade my personal space and harass me—which is physically not safe for me or those who are with me, and keeps my family in a state of worry."

For Exhale Pro-Voice, the entire reason for practicing "ethical storysharing" when it comes to telling another's abortion story is to "make sure that the person [who had the abortion is in] the center of the storytelling process and ensures that her rights, needs, and leadership are supported and respected throughout the process." Bracey Sherman says that anyone who tells someone else's abortion story as Connors has done can make the person who had the abortion "feel violated and adds to the shame that folks who have had abortions may already feeling." Beyond that, it can have real-life consequences. "When someone shares your experience for you," Bracey Sherman says, "especially without your permission, they put you and your story out into the world in a way that could have grave consequences—family shaming, intimate partner violence, mental health stress, loss of a job, etc."

It is Evert who will face the heat for Connors's decision, especially the way that he told it. By saying that he was willing accept responsibility and that she excluded him from helping her make the decision, it implies that Evert was not responsible in her choice and that she is the only party that should face scrutiny for what happened. In the interviews since she released her statement condemning Connors' decision to tell her story without her permission, he has modified the way he tells the story to make it more about them as a couple. But it is his words on the page that will be preserved for posterity and that will follow Evert around in the future.

The media's attention to Evert's abortion story may be a boost for sales of his biography. It has certainly made the release of the book front-page news outside of just the tennis community, though Connors hasn't even had much of a presence there in the last few years. Connors has not coached a high-profile athlete since his relationship with Andy Roddick ended in 2008 and he has no regular commentating job (while he was hired by the Tennis Channel in 2009, he is no longer listed on their site listing on-screen talent). He wrote the book last year while recovering from two hip replacement surgeries.

Evert is regularly on TV, though. ESPN owns the rights to all four of the tennis grand slam championships and so for eight weeks of the year Evert appears on the screens of U.S. tennis fans' TVs as an ESPN commentator. And she will be back in public soon. The French Open begins in two weeks and only two weeks after it ends, Wimbledon begins.

Connors telling Evert's story decades later shows the particular vulnerability that women face in a culture that stigmatizes abortion. Even decades later, after a career that most professional tennis players will only ever dream about accomplishing, Evert has had to deal with potential fallout from a decision that allowed her to have both a successful professional and personal life. (She eventually had three children with Andy Mills).

Other than the statement released through her agent, the only other thing that Evert has said publicly about Connors' revelation is a simple tweet on May 5 that reads: "Thank you guys for your support this week; means a lot to me..." Evert has weathered many a storm in her life both publicly and privately since she broke onto the tennis scene at the age of 15. The point, though, is that she shouldn't have to weather anything. Connors should never have made that decision for her.