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Opinion Novak Djokovic and Boris Johnson disrespect everyone who follows the rules

Tennis player Novak Djokovic in Belgrade, Serbia, on Monday after being deported from Australia. (Darko Bandic/AP)

The rule is simple: Anyone who travels to Australia has to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked men’s tennis player in the world, was not vaccinated. He tried to play in the Australian Open anyway, with a medical exemption. A standoff ensued, and some legal wrangling. And finally, at the last minute before the first round of the tournament this week, Australia sent him home.

The dramatic finish was a loss for Djokovic, who was seeking his 10th Australian Open title.

But it was a victory for my team. We are the Rule Followers, and we needed a win.

It’s been a tough couple of years. Rule followers like me masked up, locked down, sanitized till our skin cracked, followed the arrows in the grocery store, stood on social-distancing floor stickers, got vaccinated (when it was our turn and no sooner), and then, because of all the people who didn’t follow the rules, did it all over again. The rules got more confusing and more changeable, and still we tried to keep up. We followed rules even when it felt as if we had to chase them down.

At best, our cooperation was taken for granted; at worst, we were mocked for being “sheep.”

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We’re accustomed to the disrespect. In this country, the term “rule follower” is itself a gentle insult. I have balked at being called one: I have smuggled food into a movie theater! I got a speeding ticket once!

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But it’s true. I would never claim the express checkout lane before carefully counting the items in my cart. I would never use my coat to block an open seat beside me on the train. When friends ahead of me in line for a show wave me forward, I decline: That’s fine. I’ll stay back here.

This attitude might make me correct, but it does not make me cool, like the rebels and cowboys, mavericks my culture adores. America’s iconic big-screen cops (John McClane in “Die Hard,” Axel Foley in “Beverly Hills Cop,” Martin Riggs in “Lethal Weapon”) don’t go by the book. Its iconic big-screen teenagers fake a fever and skip school, as in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” which, along with the charming, rule-breaking Ferris, featured two kinds of rule followers: the wimp (Ferris’s sniffling friend, Cameron) and the rat (Ferris’s vindictive sister, Jeanie). I still harbor a deep sympathy for both.

To be clear, the rule breakers in these movies aren’t fighting discrimination or injustice. We’re not talking Rosa Parks. These characters break rules because rules are for chumps.

That’s the cultural bias our public health officials and government leaders have been battling for almost two years as they try to make rules that (1) will keep the virus from spreading and (2) Americans will follow. It’s a bias that boosted the career of Donald Trump, whose habitual rule-breaking was both a satisfying rebuke to the “elites” and a sign of real-world savvy. Not paying taxes, Trump said,makes me smart.”

For almost two years, rule breakers have been acting out, throwing tantrums and shopping carts, and putting the entire national covid response at risk. By rights, rule followers should be making scenes, too, but we usually don’t. At our most ferocious, we might say to a barefaced stranger, “I have an extra mask if you need one.” When I failed to convince my gym that it was breaking New York state’s mask requirement, I angrily … stayed home.

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Meanwhile, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) broke his own rules by eating with friends at the French Laundry. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers called himself “immunized” when he really meant “unvaccinated,” and when he got caught (by catching covid), the National Football League did basically nothing. The league did, however, suspend Antonio Brown and Mike Edwards for using fake vaccination cards. For committing fraud and putting their teammates at risk, they were barred for three whole games.

The hits keep coming. Last month, we learned that Prime Minister Boris Johnson attended a party in the midst of Britain’s 2020 lockdown.

Will he face consequences? I hope so. Breaking rules doesn’t just disrespect authority. It disrespects everyone who follows the rules. When Greek tennis player Stefanos Tsitsipas was asked to comment on Djokovic, he noted that “not everyone is playing by the rules,” which made those who did follow protocol look like fools.

Australians have complied with some of the strictest covid lockdowns in the world and got vaccinated in impressive numbers. An “Australia Talks” national survey explains why: “Despite the fact we like to think of ourselves as larrikins” — that’s Aussie for Ferris Buellers — “Australians are actually a nation of rule-followers.” The vast majority wanted Djokovic booted.

Today, I celebrate with them. Yippee-ki-yay, if I may say so.