By now, the debacle of Serena Williams and the U.S. Open is old news.
Everyone knows about the alleged cheating, the racket throw, the “thief” comment and all of its fallout. But while it might be easy to move on from this controversy, I’ve found over the last week that the incident was a frightening barometer for the attitude of the sports world towards black female athletes.
It must be pointed out that the U.S. Open wasn’t having a stellar year in gender equity before Serena entered the mix. Days before, French tennis player Alizé Cornet was penalized after she rushed to change her shirt during a heat break, then took it off to turn it right-side-out on the court shortly before resuming play.
In the same tournament, male stars John Isner and Novak Djokovic had removed their shirts and sat shirtless without receiving penalties, and the disparity earned mass criticism from sports fans across the country. The foundation for an apparent pattern of unbalanced violation enforcement already existed before Serena and her opponent, Naomi Osaka, even took the court on Saturday afternoon.
And for Serena, maybe, it just felt like it was all just too much. This moment can’t be taken out of context for her, either. The star battled a life-threatening complication after delivering her child last year, then was banned from wearing a suit made to help her condition at the French Open.
This is a woman who has been questioned and criticized with open abandon for the entirety of her career. Now, she has been accused of cheating and robbed of a game point by a man in a chair who was abnormally strict in his enforcement. Maybe on Saturday, with her game slipping against a young challenger and her body tiring after an exhausting year of competition, it all just felt like too much.
As we transition away from the Open weekend, the issue now, however, isn’t whether Serena was right or wrong. The debate over Carlos Ramos’ decision raged over the weekend, but it’s midweek now, and attention is turning already away from tennis and back to Thursday Night Football and College GameDay.
There won’t ever be a conclusion to that debate. Sports media thrives off of debates — Was that a catch? Was that a foul? Were those balls deflated? The question now isn’t the “right or wrong” of the debate. It’s the way that the two black women at its center have been treated by those on either side.
No voice has been minimalized more in American culture than the voice of the black woman. Black women are silenced, ignored and oppressed more than almost any other figure (perhaps, besides, Native and trans people) in our country, and this pattern polices our expectation for them.
Nothing is more strictly regulated than the anger of a black woman. Just look at the way Serena’s actions have been described. The most commonly used word was “meltdown,” a word that paints the picture of a woman throwing a tantrum, not of an athlete aggressively advocating for her rights.
Serena’s actions are repeated by many — mainly white — men in the game, yet they are not seen as threatening or overemotional. The difference is clear. Men may voice their opinions in firm tones. Men may be bullies. But women are expected to be docile, calm, respectful. This myth of the calm woman actually comes from the fear of women who are the opposite — fiery, strong, unafraid of challenge.
This fear is best represented by an Australian cartoon that ran this week, which depicted Serena in an aggressively racist fashion based off of Mammy cartoons from the 1930s. Even if the umpire’s decision wasn’t racist or sexist, the reaction to Serena’s conduct has been unendingly so.
It’s not just racist caricatures, either. One of the arguments against Serena that I’ve heard most often is that she stole the show from her opponent, the 20-year-old Osaka who became the first Japanese woman to win the Open. Somehow, it became Serena’s fault that the crowd booed during the trophy presentation, that the national headlines focused on the American runner-up rather than the Japanese winner.
This is not fair, and you wouldn’t see it with male competitors. Serena should not stay silent and stop advocating for herself just because Osaka is making history, and this expectation that she should step aside to lift up other women is yet another double standard that is often foisted on women in sports.
Women should be allowed to be competitors. They should be allowed to argue with referees, to complain about violation calls, in the same way that LeBron James is allowed to, without nationwide controversy.
This expectation of deference is common, yet it unfairly expects female athletes to put other women’s needs above themselves. That expectation must be erased in order for female athletes to be able to equally advocate for themselves.
Win or lose, Serena’s willingness to speak for herself should be applauded, not condemned. And until that sentiment is widely felt, the world of sports will not be equal for men and women.
Julia Poe is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Thursdays.