Sunday 8 December 2019

Sinead Kissane: Reaction to Serena controversy illustrates the pitfalls of hero worship

 

Serena Williams makes her point before being docked a game during the US Open final. Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Serena Williams makes her point before being docked a game during the US Open final. Photo: USA TODAY Sports
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

In an interview with Vogue magazine in August 2017, Serena Williams spoke about how her view of power has changed the more experienced she's become.

"Not only me, but women in general sometimes feel that power is a bad word. As I've gotten older I've started to feel differently about it. Power is beauty. Strength is beauty," Serena was quoted as saying. "So now on the court I want people to think that I'm powerful. But I also want them to be shocked at how I play. I want people to expect something, then get something different".

To understand the support for Serena's reaction during the US Open final last Saturday night is to remind ourselves of what she has spoken about in the past. She's talked about equal pay: "I would never want my daughter to be paid less than my son for the same work. Nor would you." Last year she wrote: "Today is Black Women's Equal Pay Day. This day shines a light on the long-neglected fact that the gender pay gap hits women of colour the hardest. Black women are 37 cents behind men in the pay gap - in other words for every dollar a man makes, black women make 63 cents."

She also raised gender inequality in an open letter two years ago and "the way we are constantly reminded we are not men, as if it is a flaw".

Compare this to how another sporting great, Tiger Woods, doesn't engage in questions about social and political issues and it hardens the position of why Serena is seen as more than one of the greatest athletes of our time. She's the example of how to overcome discrimination of all forms to rise to the top. Serena isn't just bigger than a movement, she's seen as the movement, she is the fight for equality and fairness.

And therein lies the dilemma.

The power of Serena has been seen in the past week with some of the reaction to what she was being penalised for being viewed as less important to what she said she was standing up for.

Serena was docked a game by umpire Carlos Ramos in the final for verbal abuse, having already had a point penalty for smashing her racquet and a code violation for coaching. "I'm here fighting for women's rights and for women's equality and for all kinds of stuff. And 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 took a game from a man cos they said 'thief'," Serena said about Ramos in the press conference following her defeat to Naomi Osaka.

"I just feel like the fact that I've to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman. And they're going to be allowed to do that because of today," Serena said. It was followed by applause from sections of the media in the press conference at Flushing Meadows.

After, Billy Jean King tweeted thanks to Serena "for calling out this double standard." The controversy has highlighted the injustice of a rule which penalises the player if the coach is seen coaching and the discretion with which enforcing this rule has been used by other umpires in the past.

But are female players subjected to different treatment in comparison to male players? Statistics this week show there were 86 code violations given to male players at this US Open compared to 22 to women. More detailed analysis published this week of grand slam events over the past 20 years show that 1,534 code violations were given to men and 526 handed to women.

Disagreeing with Billy Jean and Serena on the exact nature of "double standards" doesn't mean there aren't competing realities. Double standards do exist (see Alize Cornet being issued with a code violation by the umpire for removing her shirt which later resulted in the US Open expressing "regret" at the decision) but that doesn't mean they existed in the way Serena was treated by Ramos.

Martina Navratilova caught it perfectly in her opinion piece in the 'New York Times'. "It's difficult to know, and debatable, whether Ms Williams could have gotten away with calling the umpire a thief if he were a male player," Navratilova said. "But to focus on that, I think, is missing the point. If, in fact, the guys are treated with a different measuring stick for the same transgressions, this needs to be thoroughly examined and must be fixed. But we cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behaviour that no-one should be engaging in on court."

When someone is adored and worshipped the way Serena is, it can create an attachment to her judgement as distinct to just morals and values. This makes it easy to view Serena as a moral compass and if she calls a decision a "sexist remark" then that must be what it is. But the flaw in this is that Serena makes flawed judgements like the rest of us. In the 2009 US Open semi-final, she called a lineswoman "a hater" and "unattractive inside" which cost her a point penalty.

Using the fight for women's rights to explain her reaction on court last weekend has the knock-on effect of devaluing a sensitive issue when what was really at play here was the application of rules by an umpire who's earned a reputation for being a stickler.

We also like to frame the fight for equality through the hard work some must do to make it easier for others, which is how Serena put it in the press conference. But what will be the real legacy of her decision to describe being penalised as "sexist"? Will it mean more doubt cast on a player if a legitimate sexism issue arises in the future? Will that player be believed and trusted? Worse still, will a player decide to stay quiet for fear of coming up against the kind of backlash Serena faced last weekend?

There is, of course, a duality in all of this. Disagreeing with Serena isn't disagreeing with equality and fairness. Criticising her behaviour isn't criticising the fight for women's rights or ignoring what she's gone through in the past. What been lost was the one thing that women like Serena teach us - which is to think for ourselves and remind ourselves that fairness and equality is for all women. Because it's easy to forget that there were two women on that court last Saturday night.

Serena, indeed, delivered a shock with how she performed last weekend. Because we expected one thing but then got something entirely different.

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