Serena Williams’s otherworldly year was capped this week with her being named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year for 2015. And, while many sports aficionados applauded the accolade, and the striking image of Williams sitting on a throne on the magazine’s cover, critics immediately began attacking Williams, dismissing her as a worthy choice. Some cries were for former UFC Bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey, but even more fans loudly advocated for American Pharoah, the steed that won the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup Classic this year. Yes, a horse. For “Sportsperson of the Year.” The Los Angeles Times, whose credibility is shrinking by the day, even went as far as to fire off the following tweet: “Serena Williams or American Pharoah: Who’s the real sportsperson of 2015? Vote in our poll.”
What should have been a well-deserved honor for Williams quickly devolved into a farce online, as pundits, fans, and trolls alike flooded Twitter with every kind of attack against the tennis legend landing the SI tribute.
Most of the trolls criticizing Williams made it clear that they weren’t just against her being on the cover—they had problems with Serena Williams. There were criticisms that the cover was “oversexed” because Williams posed in a leotard with high heels and one leg draped over the throne. That came alongside obnoxious, racist jokes that claimed the star looked “ugly” and “like a man.” The same conflicted contempt has dogged Williams her entire career; a certain segment of the population can’t seem to come to grips with the fact that she’s both sexy and strong, so they have to symbolically stone her for both.
Trolls are trolls and there’s no accounting for that. But when Sports Illustrated conducted an online poll asking: “Who should’ve won” the award after-the-fact, fans overwhelmingly voted for the horse. This was a very specific anti-Serena backlash that was bigger than just Sportsperson of the Year.
“There has been an anti-Serena element because she didn’t fit the stereotype of the old-fashioned, elegant white female tennis player,” British horseracing broadcaster Brough Scott told CNN. “She was big and muscular and black. Let’s be candid about it, there’s been plenty of that sort of unspoken prejudice against Serena, I’d have thought, over the years.”
Williams was the first individual woman to win the Sportsperson of the Year honor since track and field star Mary Decker in 1983 (the U.S. women’s soccer team was honored collectively in 1999), and Williams lost just three of 53 matches. American sports fans should revel in the opportunity to celebrate a black woman sustaining her greatness so late into her career—it’s a major accomplishment for any athlete, but provides so much for young people and especially non-white youth in the way of inspiration and motivation.
But that’s not how this works. Whether it’s Cecil the Lion or American Pharoah, the underlying white supremacy in American culture prefers to celebrate animals that it can subjugate over brown people who refuse to be put into boxes.
“I’ve had people look down on me. I’ve had people put me down because I didn’t look like them—I look stronger,” Williams said during her acceptance speech at the Sportsperson of the Year ceremony in New York City. “I’ve had people look past me because of the color of my skin. I’ve had people overlook me because I was a woman. I had critics say I will never win another grand slam when I was only at number seven and now here I stand today with 21 grand slam titles and I’m still going.”
The resentment towards Serena Williams and the Sportsperson of the Year cover is a reminder that there will always be scorn for black greatness that doesn’t defer to the insecurities of white folks. For a black person to demand anything is an affront to whiteness; for a black woman to do it is an act of Cultural Revolution. And it will elicit pushback from White America. That black woman could be Sandra Bland demanding to know why an officer pulled her over. That black woman could be Nicki Minaj demanding that MTV celebrate black female artists as readily as white female artists. That black woman could be a student organizer on a university campus seeking to address racial disparities, or an editor of a major black publication daring to demand accountability from white pundits and politicians. The hostility that woman will face will be harsh and severe—and it will be because she refused to be an accommodating black woman.
Serena’s “attitude” is often under scrutiny. So many observers and critics have targeted black athletes for “cockiness,” and it’s become a convenient bit of racist double-speak to fawn over athletes who “play the game the right way.” During the Army-Navy game, I saw more than a few tweets from those who claimed to prefer the “classy” sportsmanship of that particular contest to what they consider arrogant showboating in the NFL and NCAA football. But baseball lore is filled with cocky and crass personalities, and fights are as much a part of hockey culture as the game itself.
John McEnroe is the easiest example of obnoxiousness in sports, and earned heaps of praise for his “attitude”—with crazy antics that far surpassed anything Williams has done—but he’s not an anomaly at all. Larry Bird was one of the greatest trash-talkers in NBA history and was lauded for calling out his teammates publicly after Game 3 of the 1984 Finals by declaring that the Celtics had “played like sissies.” Even as athletes, we expect women to be demure and coy where sports are intense and aggressive. And a black woman has to endure the typical “loud and mean” and “angry black woman” stereotypes that come with not bending to make those lower than you comfortable.
They hate Serena because she’s not that horse. She doesn’t “perform” for them and then gladly accept whatever treat they have to reward her with afterwards. She’s a black woman and the best at what she does. She doesn’t apologize for that and she doesn’t need to. She’s earned it. She’s sustained it. And she’s done it while tearing through barriers of race, beauty and body standards, age and injury. She is the greatest athlete of her generation and she continues to define herself however she pleases. She’s proven that she can overcome insurmountable odds to achieve the highest heights in sports. She’s proven that she is the best America has to offer. And her critics would do well to remember all of that and one more, very important fact:
Serena Williams doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone.