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Solidarity with Serena Williams

By: 
Alex Kerner

September 17, 2018

As a life-long tennis fan, I’ve seen Serena Williams dominate the sport for the last twenty years, from a 19-year-old surprise winner of the US Open to surpassing Steffi Graff as the most decorated player in the Open Era. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen her treated like no other champion, whether it be countless incidents of overt or implicit racism or sexism, targeted drug testing that can only be described as harassment, or getting called for violations that are rarely enforced on anyone else.

As early as 2001, Williams and her older sister, Venus, faced the ugly face of tennis fans at the Indian Wells tournament who regularly booed them. Their father recalled fans calling them “[N-word]” and one man telling him that he’d “wish it was '75; we'd skin you alive.”. As a result of this treatment, the Williams sisters refused to play the tournament for over a decade.

These incidents were not one-offs, though. At a 2007 event, Williams had a fan shout at her: "That's the way to do it! Hit the net like any Negro would!" When she won at Wimbledon in 2015, the Twitterverse was littered with comments describing her as a gorilla. These are just glaring examples of how Williams’ success has been plagued with either outright racist epithets or racist attributions of this success to strereotypical ideas about African-American bodies and physique.

Racist and sexist double standards

In addition to this, Williams has faced intense scrutiny from bodies that regulate the tennis world, both on and off the court.

Off the court, Williams has faced uncomparable scrutiny from drug testing officials, despite never once testing positive in over 20 years of competing professionally. Although regular drug testing is the norm in professional sports, recent reports have noted that few athletes get tested as much as Williams, being tested twice as many times in 2018 as any other American female player.

Williams has also faced criticisms for the clothing she wears at tournaments. At this year at the French Open, Williams competed in her first Grand Slam since having a child and, because of complications she had with blood clotting, she wore a black body suit—which she playfully referred to it as her Black Panther catsuit. Well after the tournament was over, French Open president Bernard Giudicelli decided to ban the outfit’s use in the future, stating “'I believe we have sometimes gone too far. Serena’s outfit this year, for example, would no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.” Although women players regularly wear very short skirts, which often reveal their undergarments, it was Williams’ outfit that was deemed untoward for some reason.

On the court, Williams also appears to receive warnings and unfavourable penalties that are rarely handed out to other players.

At the 2009 US Open, playing against Kim Clistjer and serving to remain in the match, Williams was called for a foot fault. In over thirty years of watching tennis, I have seen a foot fault called only twice, yet here was Williams charged with an offense that is almost never called. Upset, Williams began to challenge the line judge who made the call, which resulted in point penalty that cost her the match.

And then again this year during the US Open final, the umpire handed Williams a warning for coaching, again another penalty that is almost never called despite the act of coaching being rampant and informally allowed for. Williams subsequently received a point penalty for smashing her racket, and after yelling at the umpire for the initial coaching penalty and calling him a thief, Williams was handed a game penalty at a key point in the match. These are penalties that are seldom called, especially in the men’s game, where players regularly scold, berate, and swear at umpires, who usually bite their tongues and let the players vent. Why apply to Williams such a large penalty, in a key moment?

Williams rightfully pointed to the double-standard women face in these situations, and how she has been the target of calls and penalties that others have not faced. In a sports world where the top players routinely get the benefit of the doubt and are given leeway, Williams correctly notes that she gets none of this treatment despite being the greatest player of all time.

In the aftermath, Williams has faced a barrage of criticism, with the umpires threatening to boycott her matches and an Australian newspaper publishing a vile and racist cartoon that depicted Williams with the stereotypical tropes that recall the Jim Crow era in American history, but that sadly persist today.

Solidarity

So this raises all sorts of questions, especially for leftists and socialists who love sports. It’s easy to just dismiss Williams for having “lost it” on the court and that she rightfully deserved the penalties for breaking the rules. But that removes the entire context of who Williams is, the experience she has had as a tennis star, and the constant policing of her body and her attitude in ways that no other player faces. This is on top of the generalized racism and sexism she endures every day, simply for being a black woman.

Yes, Williams lost her composure at this particular moment. But what is more remarkable is the extent to which Williams remains composed in the face of an endless barrage of criticism and explicitly differential treatment motivated by racism and sexism.

This is the big picture: Serena Williams, the greatest player ever, gets a minor league warning in the final of a Grand Slam match and then must deal with umpires threatening to boycott her when they made no such threats of McEnroe or Connors or any other male players who have screamed and yelled and shouted much worse insults than “thief”. This blatant double-standard, and its consequences for Williams’ career, ought to be the real outrage.

You cannot separate the treatment Williams faces from racism and sexism in sports. Her success has never been accepted or embraced in the way it has been for Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. She gets the Twitter insults, the racist cartoons, the extra warnings, and the criticisms of her clothing and physique—and this is just what’s public. We know that the unrelenting attacks Williams suffers in private rarely get the kind of front-page coverage that this issue has. That is the price she has paid for her unprecedented success as a black woman in an ostensibly white sport.

So for socialists, there is absolutely no debate. We must be tribunes of the oppressed and when we know someone faces any kind of attack because of their race or gender, we support them unconditionally. Solidarity with Serena.

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