Serena Williams is in the news for a reason other than winning at tennis. Wait, she often makes headlines for other reasons, and we’ll talk about some of these. But the recent discussion of her disputing with the umpire at the U.S. Open Final (2018) has me incensed. I am angry. I am angry for several reasons, and I want to get into that as well. I will be referring to Serena Williams throughout as “Serena” to distinguish her from her sister, Venus, another tennis great.
First, the discussion about Serena Williams shouldn’t occur in a vacuum. Too many of those who are weighing in calling her unsporting or deserving of the penalties she got frankly have not done anything more than watch the reel of her complaining to the judge about the penalties. They haven’t taken into account any of the context surrounding these comments, or the more than a decade of fighting against a system stacked against her that Serena has overcome.
Early in the U.S. Open, Alize Cornet, a French player, got penalized because she had realized her shirt was inside out and changed it on the court. She simply took her shirt off, flipped it right side in, and put it back on. Penalty. Meanwhile, male athletes like Djokovic (with his own history of sexism) run around with their shirt completely off in celebration without penalty. This was an early and glaring example of the sexism in the powers that be of tennis. Later, it was admitted Cornet should not have been penalized. Ya think?
As one headline opined, Cornet didn’t violate anything but the notion that women’s bodies are inherently “scandalous.” Cornet would later note that the catsuit ban (see below) was even more absurd than the penalty against her.
At the French Open, Serena was planning to play in a catsuit, which was intended to help her health, but was banned from doing so. She took it in stride and with grace, finding other ways to deal with her health that fit the tennis hierarchy’s notion of what a woman ought to look like.
Several male tennis players came out on Twitter and elsewhere noting that not just others but that they themselves have gotten away with saying much worse to umpires and not been even warned about it. Cursing, shouting, screaming, slamming rackets: these behaviors are frequently overlooked when men do them, but when it is Serena? An umpire decides to tilt the match with a full game penalty. Why? There’s a clear double standard that continues in tennis that exists in the society at large. Another clear example is the discussion of “grunting” or “groaning” in tennis. Women continually have the sounds of exertion they make during a match cited as unseemly or worth mocking, while men who make just as much or more noise do so without comment.
One Christian apologist cited Billie Jean King’s own actions dealing with sexism as a counter-argument to me speaking about the unequal treatment of Williams. Billie Jean King, however, wrote a post later that day in which she affirms much of what I was saying:
Did Ramos treat Williams differently than male players have been treated? I think he did. Women are treated differently in most arenas of life. This is especially true for women of color. And what played out on the court yesterday happens far too often. It happens in sports, in the office and in public service. Ultimately, a woman was penalized for standing up for herself. A woman faced down sexism, and the match went on…
Women have a right, though, to speak out against injustice — as much right as a man. I found myself in similar situations in my career; once, I even walked off the court in protest. It wasn’t my proudest moment, but it may have been one of my more powerful ones. I understand what motivated Williams to do what she did. And I hope every single girl and woman watching yesterday’s match realizes they should always stand up for themselves and for what they believe is right. Nothing will ever change if they don’t…
Women are taught to be perfect. We aren’t perfect, of course, and so we shouldn’t be held to that standard. We have a voice. We have emotions. When we react adversely to a heated professional situation, far too often, we’re labeled hysterical. That must stop.
Constant Racism and Sexism Against Serena
There is a long, long history of racism and sexism against Serena Williams and her sister, Venus. From repeated uses of the n-word by so-called “fans” of tennis to being called a gorilla to having another player stuff her skirt and top with towels to mock Serena’s curves (yes, this really happened), Serena has long been a target of all kinds of nonsense, jealousy, and hatred. The many negative comments following this controversy at the U.S. Open just add to that. This post outlines more of the long history and horrible things Serena has had to deal with in her career.
Despite this continued, horrible treatment, Serena has long acted with grace and dignity in the face of these comments and actions. She has set an example that ought to be followed. Yet when she allows her emotion to show, finally allowing some anger to show and some tears to flow in reaction to the unfair application of rules by a power hungry umpire, she is vilified. This is not just unfair, but yet another example of the unequal treatment of Serena.
But She Violated the Rules
There are those who will claim this context doesn’t matter. Rules are rules no matter who you are, and she violated the rules. There may be a case for that, if the rules were applied with any consistency whatsoever. As Serena noted, it seemed clear the umpire was practically accusing her of cheating when she hadn’t even been looking at her coach and male tennis players consistently get that same level of coaching or much, much more without penalty. If rules are really rules for a reason, then there should be enforcement of those rules. But like having Djokovic running around shirtless with impunity vs. Cornet fixing an issue with her shirt and being penalized, there is no consistency enforcing the rules on Serena. An umpire with an ego decided to make a power play out of one of the biggest matches of the year.
Officials and Privilege
I have long been of the opinion that if a sporting event ends up having the story be about the officials, something is deeply wrong with the officiating. Here, the story of the U.S. Open ended up not being about the first Japanese player ever to win a Majors Final, nor about how Serena fought hard through adversity to make a match out of it after a decisive first match by Naomi Osaka; rather, it became about the umpire. There’s something seriously wrong there. As one op ed noted, “Ramos [the umpire] took what began as a minor infraction and turned it into one of the nastiest and most emotional controversies in the history of tennis, all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him.” Yep. It’s the fragile male ego striking again, and I say this as a white male.
I know it’s supposed to be some kind of stigma now, especially after the absurdity of some recent evangelical statements about “social justice” (for context and analysis from a source I don’t always agree with, check out this post on that recent statement), but I do realize that as a white male I have significant privilege in this society. I realize that when my privilege is challenge, I have sometimes reacted negatively and defensively, trying to preserve my position. But I repent of that and hope that Christians can all work together to bring about that world that is called for in Galatians 3:28, a world in which there is true equality. I am angry that Serena is not allowed to show anger, that when she is merely excited about a match she is called an animal, that unseemly actions are taken to mock her. This is not something that should be tolerated, and I am angry that various tennis associations and our society at large has generally allowed this kind of treatment to stand. I am angry that when she does, finally, react, Serena is attacked and scorned. Let us work towards a society where all are treated equally, and let’s work towards that as much as we can, wherever we are.
What To Do
The Women’s Tennis Association and other major tennis organizations must work to end the sexism in the sport and do some serious investigation of how penalties are handed out as well as how the rules are applied. Moreover, there needs to be more severe policing of sexist and/or racist comments or actions taken by tennis players and officials. Without these actions, it is clear that the powers that be in tennis simply do not care about these inequities in their sport.
Individuals can play a part as well, and affirmation goes a long way. Serena has faced skepticism her whole career, and as she continued to get better and beat all comers, the sexist comments increased. Though it is tempting to fight fire with fire, a more effective path may be to simply affirm Serena Williams and other female tennis players as much as possible. Serena Williams is among the best athletes of our generation and certainly the greatest tennis player of all time. She has 23 Majors Titles, more than 800 career wins with an 85% winning record, 14 Doubles Finals wins with a 14-0 record, 2 mixed doubles titles, and 4 olympic gold medals (3 doubles, 1 singles). There is frankly no disputing these achievements, along with the fact that she genuinely changed how women’s tennis is played with her powerful style and strong service game. Her advocacy for equal pay for women, women’s equality generally, and racial reconciliation is a strong legacy that will outlast her tennis game. We are living in the age of Serena. Let’s enjoy it.
Serena Williams is Constantly the Target of disgusting racist and sexist attacks- a brief summary of many, many instances of racism and sexism that Serena Williams has faced in her career.
Serena Williams’ US Open Loss may be the grossest example of sports sexism yet– Double standard? Double standard.
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