Last week, Serena Williams announced she would play against Roger Federer in the annual Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia, later this year. The announcement came just one month after Williams lost the US Open final to Naomi Osaka in a match overshadowed by controversy. By the time the game was over, Williams had broken her racket; called the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, a thief; and received two scoring penalties.
Australian fans were noticeably outraged on Twitter about the upcoming match between the two tennis legends, claiming Williams is too much of a cheater and a “spoilt brat” to play against a “calm headed, articulated player and great role model” like Federer.
A spoilt brat v a calm headed articulated player and great role model.
— dave bannister (@davebannister9) October 3, 2018
Funny how selective our memories can be.
In 2009, Federer also went off on an umpire. During the US Open Men’s Final, he verbally attacked chair umpire Jake Garner, swearing multiple times in the process. In a video of the incident, Federer can be heard repeatedly shouting, “Don’t [expletive] talk to me” and “Don’t tell me when to be quiet, OK? When I want to talk, I’ll talk.” At the Sony Ericsson Open in 2009, Federer even busted his racket to the applause of the crowd, then he refused to shake the umpire’s hand after the match ended.
But we seem to have forgotten all of that. We excuse male athletes more when they get upset and react in aggressive and unprofessional ways. In fact, most of the time, it’s entertaining when they do–just a part of the game. The other times–such as the aforementioned Federer incidents–we don’t even remember when our favorite male athletes overreact. Their character and reputation remain intact in the narratives we form about them.
When female athletes like Williams react emotionally, however, we go for blood. We call them hysterical and other disrespectful adjectives or names that stain their character. We treat them as if they aren’t allowed to be frustrated, to feel cheated or disrespected … as if their gender and profession as an athlete means they’re not supposed to react or feel, even though these are qualities that essentially make us all human.
(2/2) When a woman is emotional, she’s “hysterical” and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) September 9, 2018
But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe we’ve grown so used to seeing women as the “other” and inferior to men that we can’t even sympathize with them when they show even a trace of their humanity.
Williams is not only a woman, she’s a Black woman, and anybody who says those two things don’t matter here–that they’re irrelevant in the context of sport–doesn’t know history or doesn’t want to. Women and Black people are two of the most discriminated against groups in American society. They are constantly fighting to be given the same rights as White men. So imagine the challenge of being both.
A day after her outburst at the US Open, cartoonist Mark Knight published a racist drawing of Williams in the Australian newspaper The Herald Sun. In the cartoon, Williams’s body and facial features are exaggerated and grotesque in size, reflective of the degrading Jim Crow caricatures that were popular in the 19th and 20th centuries.
She also appears to be throwing a tantrum next to a broken racket and a baby pacifier while the umpire and her opponent are portrayed as calm, scared White people.
Essentially, Williams is depicted as the stereotypical angry Black woman and, as a result, that anger becomes invalid. Her feelings as a Black woman become invalid.
In Knight’s cartoon, the umpire is also seen pleading with Osaka to “just let her win,” discrediting the fact that Williams’s outburst was not because she was frustrated she was losing but because she felt she had been too harshly penalized for behavior that men get away with all the time. In the press conference following the match, Williams explained exactly why she reacted the way she did, bringing up issues of sexism and gender inequality:
“I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things. I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’”
While many people criticized Knight for his racist portrayal of Williams, others spoke out in support of the drawing. For example, Herald Sun editor Damon Johnston said on Twitter that the cartoon is neither racist nor sexist and simply “mocks poor behavior by a tennis legend.”
— damon johnston (@damonheraldsun) September 11, 2018
We want athletes to be expressive in their game, to go the distance to entertain us. We love seeing their passion and ferocious determination to win at all cost played out on the court, but as soon as that passion is channeled into activism or protest, we reject it and get all indignant. Like, how dare you be passionate about something other than sports? How dare you feel anything but gratitude?
I understand there is a time and place for everything; that violence and raised voices aren’t always the best way to go about handling a situation.
But I also know that after a while, people get frustrated and tired of being treated unfairly. And when they do, they react. Sometimes they even overreact, and on the most public of stages. But this doesn’t mean their feelings are invalid or that they’re wrong or spoiled. It just means they’re frustrated, and everybody–male and female, Black or White, athlete or nonathlete–should be able to speak out in moments of personal frustration and injustice without being crucified for it.