Serena and the Left

Serena Williams

I’m a big tennis fan, and I’m an ardent leftist. The Serena Williams affair at the US Open final on September 8th has suddenly put me at odds with a lot of my brethren on the left. Many have taken up the Serena banner as the victim of a grave injustice; Serena, they say, was once again thwarted by sexism, or racism, or both. I don’t agree.

Of course, I know very well what enormous obstacles Serena Williams, the first great black female tennis star and maybe the greatest woman to ever play the game, has had to overcome because of her skin colour in tandem with her gender. I know what a heroic figure she is by virtue of her singular combination of unparalleled talent and fierce will-power, allowing her to dominate a sport traditionally the exclusive domain of well-to-do white people. I also know how often Serena has been the object of racial abuse, stereotype and insinuation. And I know that there are still glaring inequalities in professional tennis when it comes to the sexes.

But none of this is relevant to how Serena Williams was warned, fined, and penalized last weekend at Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York by an umpire from Portugal. And I can only describe the reactions I’ve seen from left and liberal commentators across the internet, including friends and colleagues, as “knee-jerk”. From my own little tennis-loving corner on the far left of the political spectrum, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of defending what might appear to be a conservative position.

Ironically, tennis was one of the ways I overcame part of my own half-conscious prejudice as a child. The son of a left-wing academic on an associate professor’s salary, I spent large parts of my childhood living in or near black neighbourhoods in Chicago and Washington, DC. When I was 12, my mother forced me to enrol in a summer tennis camp run by the City of Chicago on the other side of Austin Boulevard. Our side was the white side. I wasn’t especially eager to be the only white kid on the asphalt courts that formed one of the last barriers between our semi-suburban precinct and the vast unknown black urban expanse across the boulevard. But my mother prevailed, and by the end of the summer I had not only improved my backhand, but I’d also learned to stop fearing some of those kids from “the ghetto,” with whom I know at least had the shared experience of playing tennis. One or two of them even became friends.

I mention this story not to credentialise my anti-racism, but as a confession about the kind of subcutaneous prejudice that even the son of a radical academic had to work unexpectedly hard to overcome. I’m sure there are still traces of prejudice pushing or pulling me in subtle ways as the occasion arises. I bet that Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire at the ill-fated US Open final last weekend, could say the same. But neither my analysis of the Serena Williams scandal nor Carlos Ramos’ part in it has anything to do with such prejudice—whether implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious—and it dismays me that so many of my political allies on the left have failed even to consider this as a possibility.

The drama at last week’s US Open women’s final unfolded in three short but fateful acts: 

Act 1: Down a set and struggling against a much younger opponent, Serena was given a warning for on-court coaching by chair umpire Carlos Ramos. The on-court coaching rule is the only part of this affair where there is any real ambiguity about the rules and their application. The women’s circuit allows it; then men’s circuit and the Grand Slams do not. The prohibition is often unenforced and often difficult to enforce because it’s difficult to detect. Carlos Ramos chose to be a “stickler” this time around, probably because that’s just the kind of umpire he is, and maybe because of some earlier high-profile occurrences of lax coaching during the course of this year’s tournament. Serena saw or pretended to see in his warning an attack on her “character.“ She even demanded an apology. The stage was set for an escalation.

Act 2: After losing a game on serve, a frustrated Serena smashed her racket, and Ramos docked her a point. Here there is no ambiguity at all. Racket smashing is verboten, and the penalty is automatic. After a warning, the next infringement results in a point penalty. The one after that is a game penalty. Serena now had no more room to manoeuvre, and as a veteran of Grand Slam tennis, she must have known it. 

Act. 3: Serena’s “meltdown.” Over a period of a few minutes, Serena worked herself into a hot rage about Ramos’ two calls against her. She told him not to talk to her. She called him a liar. Only when she added that he was a “thief” did Ramos respond by issuing a game penalty for “verbal abuse,“ thus putting Naomi Osaka another game in front of the former champion. This has widely been portrayed as heavy-handed or even as an act of vanity on the umpire’s part. But the Grand Slam rule book defines verbal abuse simply and clearly as “a statement about an official, opponent, sponsor, spectator, or other person that implies dishonesty or is derogatory, insulting or otherwise abusive”. Serena didn’t have to use obscenities or insult Ramos’ mother or threaten his career (though she did that, too) to get this penalty. All she had to do is exactly what she did. And now all Naomi Osaka had to do was hold serve to close out the match.

Then came the aftermath: Serena’s press conference, the media shit storm and the endless social media reverberations. What strikes me most about the latter in particular is how many people have expressed strong opinions about what happened in a major professional tennis match without knowing the game, its rules or its history. How much certainty has been expressed about the “sexism” or the “racism” judge Ramos’ decisions without any empirical evidence whatsoever? It was enough that Serena Williams—black woman sports star par excellence—got game-altering calls against her while losing a high-stakes championship match, complained that they were unfair, and claimed that this wouldn’t have happened to a man. Far too many people seem to think her mere testimony made it true.

So what kind of evidence would show that Carlos Ramos really did treat Serena Williams differently than he would have treated a man, or a white woman, in the same situation? Consider a paradigm that is certainly in the back of many commentators’ minds when they accuse Ramos of a “double standard“: criminal justice. In left-liberal social media circles, this has become a perennial theme circulating via articles and videos on a nearly daily basis. We all know because we’ve seen it on countless occasions, that American cops routinely harass, arrest or kill black people simply because they’re black. But beyond our collective social media feedback loops, how do we really know this is true? Because there is a mountain of evidence that proves it. One study, for instance, shows that, although racial minorities in 2014 comprised less than half the overall population in the United States, they made up almost two-thirds of those killed by the police while unarmed. Similar facts and figures about racial disparities with regard to police behaviour in America could fill volumes and do. And this can easily be extended to the racism of the criminal justice system as a whole.

By comparison, how does it look in the microcosm of professional tennis? Is the tennis world still beset by rampant sexism? And if so, is this relevant to what happened at the Williams-Osaka match? The answer to the first question is: yes; the answer to the second: not really. Gender inequality in tennis today mainly has to do with the allocation of resources, money and audiences. Although the gap is narrowing, for instance, male tennis players still get paid more than their female counterparts. And at Wimbledon, the world’s most prestigious tournament, the men still get the better courts, with their larger audiences and enhanced esteem. In fact, at almost every major tournament, the men’s finals are still scheduled a day later than the women’s—a clear sign of an antiquated hierarchy of importance.

To complicate matters further, throughout her career, Serena and her sister Venus Williams have both been at the centre of the fight to eliminate both gender inequalities and racial prejudice in tennis. Serena has been such an effective fighter, in part, simply by virtue of her unequalled success and overwhelming star allure. She has single-handedly shown, for instance, that a woman can garner audiences just as large as any man’s, undercutting one specious argument for the gender gap in money prizes. Ironically, I wouldn’t be surprised if the recent scandal secured her larger ticket sales and TV audiences than any of her male contemporaries until the end of her career.

But are Serena and her defenders right that women are judged more harshly by umpires than men? This is exactly the kind of question her supporters have not been asking since September 8. In a field of human endeavour where everything is both quantified and video-recorded, it shouldn’t be that difficult to answer. One recent article published in the New York Times offered some preliminary data. It shows that, over a 20-year period from 1998 to 2018, the men at Grand Slam tournaments received a total of 1517 fines for “code-of-conduct violations”, whereas the women got only 535. Neither the longer five-set format of men’s matches nor the greater number overall of male competitors can account for this very large discrepancy. Contrary to the assumption behind much pro-Serena commentary, male tennis players are far more likely to be penalized for transgressions such as verbal abuse and racket smashing than their female colleagues. Contrary to Serena’s complaint, if there’s a double standard, it might just be in the opposite direction.

A significant outlier in these statistics, according to the Times, is on-court coaching. Here the women received almost twice the number of penalties as the men. This makes sense, though, given that the WTA (the Woman’s Tennis Association) allows on-court coaching in non-Grand-Slam events, whereas the men are never allowed it. It’s simply easier for women and their coaches to find themselves, well, cheating a little when it comes to the coaching prohibition at Grand Slam tournaments. That’s exactly what happened to Serena’s coach at the 2018 US Open final.

Of course, any good empirical researcher will have to dig deeper. She’ll have to ask: Do women players simply behave better than the men? Or is their misbehaviour less aggressive toward officials, and thus less likely to provoke a fine? Or do umpires actually give women a pass when it comes to „unseemly“ behaviour, and could such (hypothetical) permissiveness itself be evidence of sexism? Are the “girls“ allowed their “cat fights” whereas the “men“ are held to a higher standard? No answer to these empirical questions can be conjured a priori. No mere generalities about sexism in the larger culture will suffice. No bullet-point factoids about milestones in “sexist tennis history“ will do the trick. And no cherry-picked videos showing men smashing rackets or coaches letting men curse at them will tell us what we need to know.

In the wake of the Serena/Ramos debacle, I found myself watching one depressing Youtube video after another by largely white male tennis enthusiasts mouthing off against “feminism” and “entitlement”. This is hardly the standpoint I want to defend here. But it also dismayed me to watch serious journalists such as Jeremy Scahill decry the “clear sexism” at Arthur Ashe Stadium when it just wasn’t clear at all. In a society shot through with institutional prejudices and power imbalances—yes, often habitual and ingrained beneath the surface of conscious action—it’s still possible on occasion simply to read it wrong. All the more so when the “victim“ in question is a super-rich celebrity with an international media platform. This was one lesson of the OJ Simpson trial 20 years ago, and it’s a lesson of the Serena Williams scandal today.

In fact, Serena’s own accusation of sexism seems fairly plausible compared to the many post hoc attributions of “racism“ that followed. These bring to mind Marxist scholar Adolph Reed’s analysis of the “race reductionist discourse“ of what he calls “neo-liberal antiracism”. This includes the idea that “no matter how successful or financially secure individual black people become, they remain… subject to victimization by racism”.  Given Serena Williams’ historically unprecedented celebrity in women’s tennis—her endless appearances in entertainment media, her star status  across the spectrum of mainstream media as champion-cum-sex symbol, her reality-TV-like transition to motherhood, not to mention her 23 Grand Slam titles and record-breaking singles match wins—does it really make sense to presume a priori that any adversity she encounters must spring from racism? Depending on the context, it might; then again, it very well might not.

As a Marxist, Reed considers class more important than the socially constructed idea of “race”. His critique is aimed largely at those forces in the American political context who’ve reversed the equation and used race as a cudgel to discipline or suppress a politics of economic egalitarianism. From this perspective, one important aspect of the Serena Williams affair has gone completely unnoticed by most of those decrying the racism and/or sexism of the umpire: the class element. Carlos Ramos is a “gold badge“ umpire, the highest level for this job in professional tennis. From the outside, his position looks like that of a powerful judge in a courtroom—an august administrator of the state. But gold badge umpires are employees of the tournaments they officiate, and although judging tennis matches is “their primary job and main source of income” according to the New York Times, they earn a mere $250 for a day’s work. The US Open pays the least of any major tournament.  It’s no surprise, then, that in the wake of the this year’s woman’s final and the vilification of one of their best colleagues, tennis umpires have been considering forming a union. At the Williams-Osaka match, then, who was really the more powerful party: the international star who stood to earn $3.8 million if she won and $1.8 if she didn’t; or the officiator, who for a day’s work earned about what Serena Williams makes every time she hits the ball? 

Adolph Reed could have been describing much of the commentary of the Williams-Osaka match when he lambasted a “discourse (that) posits White Supremacy/racism as a totalizing phenomenon, a force impervious to changing institutional circumstances—a primordial foundation of being…“  Armed with a nebulous critique of a generalized “culture of racism”, it’s not surprising that so many of Serena’s defenders have contented themselves with simple hand-waving about the pervasiveness or ubiquity of racism, rather than addressing the specifics of how Serena lost the US Open final last weekend or the complex sociology of her sport. In this discourse, Serena is reduced to a timeless archetype: the Black Woman struggling against the equally archetypal White Man, who, devil-like, inhabits the body of a line judge, or a journalist, or a chair umpire. Neither Serena’s changing status and circumstances can alter this, nor can the individuality of her adversaries. The prefab template—in this case, a race-based one—moulds the situation instead of describing it.

From a Marxist perspective, of course, the very focus of attention on the lone figure of the heroic (Serena) or villainous (MacEnroe) sports star is far too narrow. Those claiming Serena as a latter-day Rosa Parks of the tennis court are, for the most part, uninterested in or unaware of the vast social infrastructure outside the frame of the TV cameras. What about all the less-known and less well-paid players? What about the audiences, officials, ball-boys and ball-girls, trainers, physical therapists, media managers, journalists, ticket vendors and advertisers? What about the system that produces, trains and nurtures talented young athletes like Naomi Osaka today or the Williams sisters two decades ago? How do all these moving parts relate to Serena as black woman superstar and her run-in with one comparatively anonymous, white male umpire from Portugal? Should star players really be the focus of a political and social critique of a system involving so many people and such vast resources? Isn’t there, to return to Adolph Reed’s argument, an implicit elitism in the very framing of this discussion? Would we believe it—and even if we did believe it, would we care?—if a Hollywood star or the CEO of a major company posed as a victim of social injustice deserving our solidarity? Considered from this perspective, isn’t there something almost farcical about Serena Williams’ self-representation, summed up in her Twitter account motto: “Living, loving and working to help you?”

Of course, the story about the boy who cried wolf only makes sense against the backdrop of a forest full of wolves. It was only possible for Serena to plausibly call out sexism, and for some commentators to add racism afterwards because these two forces are in fact with us, nearly all the time and all over the place. But habits of mind that have become necessary as a defence or corrective against widespread prejudice or the systematic abuse of power can also be turned against the very ideals that informed them in the first place: fairness, tolerance, egalitarianism, objectivity. One lesson from the Serena Williams affair might be that, when it comes to evaluating cases of sexual or racial prejudice, the general and the specific just aren’t interchangeable. Or to invoke another old cliché: even on the big stage of professional sports, where heroes and paragons act out larger-than-life battles and games so often turn into allegories, the devil just never lets go of the details.

Photograph courtesy of Marianne Bevis. Published under a Creative Commons license.