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October 8, 2018 | by  | in Sports | [ssba]

Serena was Wrong, and Right

Who are some of the greatest athletes of all time?
Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Roger Federer — the usual clichés? Fair enough. These individuals have redefined what it means to play sport. But there’s a fundamental flaw in this list. These athletes are all male. So how about the women?
Sport is so often compared with the ancient practice of gladiatorial fighting. The endless depictions of athletes as these heroic gladiators, their field or court made an arena. These juxtapositions pervade the rhetoric of modern-day sport. But, this chauvinistic gladiatorial spectacle was excessively male-orientated. We’re no longer in a time where the closest thing to hearing Travis Scott was a bloke named Balbinus who played the lyre at supper. Yet, this grossly imbalanced gender hierarchy still permeates modern-day sport.
Let’s talk about Serena Williams. You see, Serena’s special. She’s a 36 year-old African American tennis player who holds the most number of major tennis titles among any active male or female player. She’s the current highest earning female athlete across the globe. Accolades aside, she was a kid from Compton who defied the social constraints and stigmas surrounding black and female athletes. She has reshaped what it means to succeed at the elite level for either gender.
So, when Serena lashed out at an umpire during the most recent US Open women’s tennis final, embroiling her debate with the greater concern of sexism within the game, it didn’t exactly fly under the radar. Upon receiving subtle coaching gestures (prohibited at the Grand Slam level), chair umpire Carlos Ramos warned Serena. When she received more gestures, Serena was penalized by one point. Serena responded angrily. She felt victimized and accused of being a “cheat”, but also seeing this penalty as a reflection of the sexism which pervades tennis. Serena maintained that she wasn’t receiving coaching. Upon throwing her racquet shortly after hitting a bad shot, she was penalized another point. The third strike came when Serena continued to argue with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, which resulted in the deduction of a whole game — an incredibly rare occurrence in tennis.
The fallout from such a high-profile incident has garnered questions around the disparity between treatment of women and men in sport. Consensus holds that Serena didn’t handle herself in an appropriate way. I agree. Gender equality ambassador, tennis icon, and founder of the Women’s Tennis Association, Billie Jean King, noted that Serena “was out of line. No one’s saying she was a good sport”. Although he maybe could have showed a greater degree of reverence and empathy, Ramos was doing his job. His reputation for sticking firm to the rules, even for such male tennis royalty as Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, attests to his personal lack of gender discrimination.
However, as Billie Jean King went on to note, regardless of how Serena conducted herself, there is still underlying sexism within tennis. Male players are often granted a greater degree of leeway. Former World No. 1 Andy Roddick tweeted out that despite the disagreements he’s had with chair umpires over the years, he never got dealt as severe a penalty as a game deduction. Novak Djokovic too has regularly been cited as firing up at chair umpires, yet has not received greater than a point penalty. In Serena’s case, this was a major final, where the rules are more rigidly upheld. But the excessively harsh nature of the full-game penalty is underpinned by lingering gender discrimination.
Unfortunately media need to take some responsibility for driving this train of gender inequality. You only have to trawl through the top sports channels on YouTube, or the most respected sporting publications, to feel as though the classic James Brown line, “This is a man’s world”, is echoing in the background. It may not be right, but the harsh reality is that male sport is the most followed, the most consumed, and garners an astoundingly imbalanced degree of funding — something fuelled by more extensive media coverage.
There also appears to be a vast double-standard in the language used to describe male and female behaviour. Let’s say a male football player hurls abuse towards a referee. He’s often deemed as “displaying passion” or that “tensions are flaring”. Their actions of protest are seen as an admired display of pride and passion. In Serena’s case, some deemed her actions as unnecessarily “aggressive”, or “inappropriate”.

The latter may well be true. However, why is it that male athletes don’t suffer the same condemnation? As Billie Jean King poignantly put it, “Because men are outspoken when they stand up for themselves, and women are looked at as hysterical”.
Despite Serena’s lack of judgment in how she went about her protest, she was right about one thing: sexism is still rampant throughout contemporary sport. Altering most people’s implicit preference towards watching male sports may be a long-term venture which requires a healthy dose of patience. But the media have a significant responsibility in portraying female sport and fostering a culture which encourages gender equality. Serena may not be perfect, but I challenge you to find any athlete who is.
Regardless of gender, let’s just appreciate greatness when we see it.


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