Sexism, Scandal, and Stolen Moments

Like Many Americans, I watched the US Open Ladies Tennis Finals yesterday afternoon when Serena Williams played Naomi Osaka for the Grand Slam title. Had Williams won, this would have been her 24th Grand Slam Title, and would have tied her for the record with Margaret Court. My hope is that she will win 2 more grand slams and Margaret Court will fade into oblivion for her bigoted views, but that is a story for a different article. At this point, we all know the outcome of what will go down as the most controversial women’s final in US Open history. Williams was denied a 24th title and Osaka came out victorious, but neither lady went home happy as a result of several controversial calls by referee Carlos Ramos. I was content to not write about this. Partially because so many people were talking about it and partially because Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post wrote without a shadow of a doubt the most eloquently written view on the subject – if Jenkins doesn’t win a Pulitzer for that commentary I would be highly surprised. I was content to let Jenkins have the final word, but then I awoke this morning to the news below:

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I am dumbfounded by this move and I cannot fathom what type of malarky the United States Tennis Association is going to come up with to try and defend an indefensible position. Time and Time again the US Open and United States tennis has screwed Serena Williams over and time and time again she has been vilified by the public and most of the press as a hysterical ABW in the throws of major meltdown. Each time, Serena Williams has emerged and changed the sport of Tennis for the better. Each time Serena has showed the governing body of a sport that is almost exclusively played by wealthy whites that there is room for all types of people in tennis – both those with and without melanin in their skin. Whether or not the USTA and the US Open every thank or realize just how important Williams has been to the game of tennis remains to be seen. But if they don’t realize it by now, then they probably aren’t going to and that just makes them as stupid and unappreciative as they currently seem.

serena-williams-us-open-2018I am not going to go through the minor details of what happened on the court during the finals. There are a million different videos from every angle imaginable. I will be the first to admit that I, along with millions of other Americans, wanted Williams to win yesterday. I always prefer an American win and I have loved and respected Serena since the days when you could hear her coming a mile away because of all the beads she had in her hair. Last night Serena abused her racket, but the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lookalike referee took a note from the Iranian dictator’s playbook when he abused his position of power. and that is far worse.

When trying to think of the reason or reasons I support Serena the most, I ended up coming up with other athletes I like. In tennis along with Serena and his sister Venus I routinely cheer for Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. In football I like Deshaun Watson, OBJ, Russell Wilson, and DeAndre Hopkins. Baseball turns me into a Nationals fan because I am a big Bryce Harper fan. Basketball has me pulling for Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. Swimming I rooted for Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Soccer I of course like most of them, but I digress because at this point we are getting away from ability and moving into physical appearance.

I thought about Serena and what she has in common with every single one of these people, and if you know any of the above names its not hard to figure out why I cheered for them. Every single one of the people on that list has passion for success in their sport and they are not afraid to show that passion on the court, field, or pool when they compete. The reason I gravitate towards Williams and Nadal in tennis is because I find tennis players like Federer and Djokovic boring to watch because they play so stoically. I like watching Steph Curry show off on the court and I like watching the swag that Russell Westbrook has when he walks into the stadium before a game looking fly as hell. Same thing goes for DeAndre Hopkins, whose instagram makes him seem more like a model for Emporio Armani than a player for the Texans. That is why I never had a problem with all the antics of Baker Mayfield when he played for Oklahoma. Yes, he was a show off, and yes, he could be obnoxious, but at the end of the day he could always back it up with his performance.

Each of the people I mentioned above has won and lost on the international stage. Each of the people above has received calls that both did and did not go their way. Each of the people above has showed their ass and looked like a petulant spoiled child. However, the only person above who has been treated and then reported on in a grossly unfair way has been Serena Williams. When the men on the list above show out and act unprofessionally they are NEVER called out on it the way Serena is. They are called passionate, or people say they are hyper focused, or in the zone. When Serena does it she is called hysterical or people throw out the word Meltdown. Just look at the tone of many of the headlines that were used last night and earlier today.

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Granted, two of the above publications are owned by Rupert Murdoch and that fact alone means they really aren’t worthy of using as toilet paper, let alone reading the fact remains the same: No male professional sports figure in recent history has EVER been called self-obsessed, narcissistic, or having the “mother of all meltdowns,” which is especially disgusting considering the fact that Serena Williams almost died giving birth less than a year ago. The majority of the people who tweeted or commented or spoke negatively about Serena used one word that is so sexist and disrespectful that I can’t even understand why it is still in use in polite conversation: hysterical. Since I do teach history for a living, allow me to give you a history lesson on the sexist word hysterical.

The root word of hysterical is hysteria. Hysteria means ungovernable emotional excess. The origins of the word hysteria comes from the Greek word for uterus and because of this, hysteria was used as a medical diagnosis almost exclusively for women and carried a variety of broad symptoms including faintness, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and a “tendency to cause trouble”. This was used as a medical diagnosis starting in the Victorian era in England and was not discontinued until 1952. The term hysterical is almost exclusively used when a woman is upset or angry. With many incidents involving professional athletes, that term has been thrown around, but I have yet to find an instance when it was used with negative connotations towards a man.

In regards to Serena’s three penalties all I will say is this. The first penalty for coaching is ridiculous. The fact that coaching is not allowed is just plain dumb in the first place. The fact that a player can be penalized for the actions of their coach when a player did not even see the coach is wrong to me. I think the rule should be changed, but if the governing bodies of tennis are going to leave it in place than it needs to be routinely enforced across the board. There needs to be a judge watching each coach at every match and they need to call it each and every time they are playing. In regards to the second penalty, I have no problem with that. It is in the rules you cannot abuse your racket and Serena clearly abused the hell out of the racket. I take umbrage with this penalty more than any other penalty, and here is why.

By giving Serena a penalty for coaching, he is saying that Serena was trying to have an unfair advantage over her opponent during the match. Essentially Carlos Ramos (who has spared with both Venus Williams, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal in the past) called Serena Williams a cheater without using the word. The fact that an umpire can assault someone’s character in the middle of a championship match is bad enough; and for those of you wondering or skeptical looking at my assertion of assault of character, that is exactly what Ramos did. To call someone a cheater is to say that don’t have the grace, dignity, and class to win without an advantage. It implies the only way they got there was to lie and manipulate their way there.

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Serena Williams is the antithesis of what he has described when he called her a cheater. She is a woman who came back from the brink of death after giving birth to make it to two Grand Slam finals less than a year later. She is a women who agrees to multiple extra inconvenient drug tests each year so people will know she doesn’t cheat. She has fought racism and sexism in her sport long before standing up for injustice was a popular thing to do. Starting with Indian Wells and continuing with her fight for equal pay, Serena Williams has spent most of her professional life in the public fighting for what is right, even when she knows it will cost her in the court of public opinion. When Ilie Nastase made vile, racist comments about what color Serena’s biracial baby would be before she was born, Serena responded with class and grace by quoting Maya Angelou’s famous poem “Still I Rise.” When John McEnroe has repeatedly made sexist comments about Serena Williams she simply and cooly replied by politely asking McEnroe to respect her and her privacy. Most recently, when the chairman of the French (a country with a huge racism problem) Open banned Serena’s cat suit, which she wore for medical reasons, because he said it did not respect them game, she responded by wearing a tutu to the US Open and posing playfully for photographers before the match.

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I have a news flash for the chairman of the French Open. People respect the game of Tennis BECAUSE of Serena Williams. Both McEnroe and Nastase were reknowned for the on-court behavior in their time. So was Andre Agassi. Currently, so is Nick Krygios. None of them ever received penalties back in their day that were as severe as Serena’s penalties were. None of them were accused of hormonal meltdown in the press. When the press still writes of all of those individuals there is a touch of longing nostalgia for the excitement they brought to the court- even if it was unsportsmanlike and disrespectful. However, because Serena is a strong confident black woman who stands up for herself in a white sport, she is demonized for it. It is high time this changes and changes quickly.

There is not a person alive today who has not at some point thought about how they want to be remembered after they are gone from their career or this world. Most of us hope we will be remembered fondly by our love ones. We hope we will be remembered for the contributions we made in our career fields. I personally hope I  will be remembered as someone who left this world better than he found it. When McEnroe, and Nastase, and Agassi, and countless other men in other sports are long gone they will all be remembered fondly. They will all be remembered as some of the greatest to ever hold a tennis racket, or club, or glove. When Jimbo Fisher is fired from Texas A&M several years from now, people will reminisce and say “remember that time ole Jimbo lost his cool on the officials when he played Clemson?” There will be a hint of positivity to the question. God knows if Serena had said the words that Jimbo Fisher clearly said to not one, but two referees last night, she would have been banned from tennis for life. And nobody referred to it as a meltdown. He simply, lost his cool. Or gave the refs a piece of his mind.

BJKSerena Williams will be remembered differently, but this time she won’t be remembered differently because of her race or because of her sex. She will be remembered differently because she is different. Serena Williams will be remembered differently because the respect she brought to the sport through her struggle to bring equality to the sport while she still kicked ass on the court at the same time. It is not always popular; Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova can attest to that. But King and Navratilova did not fight for gender equality and LGBTQ rights both in tennis and outside tennis. They fought so people like Serena and Venus wouldn’t have to. And when they weren’t completely successful, Venus and Serena continued the fight. Now it is personal for Serena Williams the tennis player – mom. The women who had already been a multi-hyphenate added the most important one to her title.

Serena Williams, in my opinion is the greatest athlete of our generation. Notice I did not say female athlete. I said greatest athlete. She has nothing to be ashamed about from last night. She was robbed and so was Naomi Osaka. Neither will be able to get the moment that Carlos Ramos stole from them back. All because he couldn’t take the tone with which a woman talked to him with. At the end of the day though, Serena Williams displayed grit, determination, strength, beauty, and class. She did us proud, but most importantly, she did her daughter proud. And that is all she should care about. Keep going, Serena! Number 24 is just around the corner. Immortality is yours for the taking!

-WB

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