09.14.09

Serena Was Totally Justified

More outrageous than Serena Williams’ outburst at the U.S. Open on Saturday are the harsh reactions to it. Paul Campos on tennis’ sexist double standard.

Serena Williams was kicked out of the U.S. Open this weekend for acting like a man. After all, tennis features a long history of some of its best and most admired players throwing spectacular on-court tantrums.  Superstars of the game such as Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe (who was doing live TV commentary on the match) were famous for verbally abusing officials, destroying rackets, and otherwise putting on exhibitions of righteous outrage even more theatrical and childish than Williams’ unfortunate outburst.

It’s hardly a coincidence that all these players were men. Especially in a sport like tennis, which still retains a faint whiff of the country club, and in which women are still more or less required to prettify themselves when performing (short skirts and makeup remain standard equipment), unhinged rage remains far more acceptable for male performers than for their female counterparts.

No underlying rule of athletics is more basic than that the players, not the officials, should decide the outcome.

Both the Williams incident itself and the media’s reactions to it—there have been numerous calls to suspend Williams from competition for months, and even next year’s tournament—reveal the extent to which gender-based double standards still afflict sports in general, and tennis in particular.

Williams, the world’s best female tennis player, was still very much in the running to collect another U.S. Open title when she was disqualified by a series of terrible officiating decisions—decisions which, while within the formal rules of the game, violated the most basic norms of athletic competition.

The Tao of Serena Williams

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The decision that triggered Williams’ tirade was a linesperson’s call of a foot fault, that handed Kim Clijsters—Williams’ opponent, who would go on to win the tournament title the next night—a match point. This was a horrendous mistake—the kind of call that understandably infuriates a highly competitive athlete at a moment of extreme tension.

Video replays employing high definition camera technology revealed that it was impossible to tell if Williams’ foot had touched the baseline. Under such circumstances, for an official sitting 75 feet away to call a foot fault was, as a matter of the game’s formal rules, a huge mistake. More important, as a matter of its informal rules, the call was an unforgiveable abuse of official discretion.

Williams’ subsequent outburst—during which she glared at the linesperson and reportedly said, among other things, “If I could, I would take this fucking ball and shove it down your fucking throat”—represented a regrettable loss of composure, but one that, under the circumstances, was somewhat understandable.

Which brings us to the real outrage at the center of the Williams affair.  After her relatively brief fit of temper, Williams was preparing to serve again, when the linesperson left her chair and approached the match’s umpire—the official ultimately responsible for all decisions. (For example, it was within the umpire’s discretion to overrule the linesperson’s foot-fault call).

Apparently, the linesperson told the umpire that Williams had threatened to kill her—something Williams denied, and which no witnesses confirmed.  Nevertheless the umpire assessed a code violation against Williams, which cost her a point. Since the foot fault had brought the contest to match point, the umpire’s decision awarded the match to Clijsters.

No underlying rule of athletics is more basic than that the players, not the officials, should decide the outcome.  This is an unwritten yet very real rule that all competent officials understand. Albert Pujols isn’t going to be ejected from the seventh game of the World Series for arguing balls and strikes, even if he questions the umpire’s ancestry in a way that would normally earn him an early shower. LeBron James isn’t going to get a second technical in a close NBA playoff game unless he hits somebody over the head with a chair.

And no tennis superstar is going to be disqualified from a U.S. Open semifinal for raging at an official, even if the formal rules of the game allow for such a decision.

Unless, apparently, the superstar in question is a black woman from Compton, California. Of course the stock response to this is to claim that pointing to Serena Williams’ race, gender, and class is an example of what is called political correctness.

That response is itself a clichéd reflex, which seeks to obscure that what happened at the National Tennis Center on Saturday night has everything to do with such factors, and most especially the fact that Williams, in the final analysis, acted too much like a man.

Athletic competition is all about competitive and emotional intensity, extreme physical effort, and a kind of metaphorical warfare that is still thought of as essentially male. In short, it’s all about blood, sweat, and no tears.

The Williams incident and the reactions to it indicate the extent to which we as a culture are still uncomfortable with the idea of girls playing what are still thought of as boys’ games.

Paul Campos is a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder.