Serena Williams Doesn’t Speak for My Daughter or Me

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I’m not a serious tennis fan, but over the years, I’ve followed the amazing career of Serena Williams. In fact, she’s hard not to watch, such a force of sheer athleticism and drive, not to mention all the spellbinding, gutsy grunts that accompany each swing of the racket. In addition, her striking, glamorous face has covered countless magazines over the years from fitness to fashion. She’s got the world’s attention, including mine. That’s why her recent rant at the US Open truly disappointed this mom.

If you haven’t seen her massive meltdown during the finals of the US Open against twenty-year-old Naomi Osaka, needless to say, it’s pretty epic. Williams is accused of getting coaching from the sidelines, which she vehemently denies, despite the fact that in an interview after the match her coach admitted to giving her signals. Although he tried to justify it by saying everyone does it and she wasn’t looking at him anyway. Initially, though, Williams seems to handle the first violation with relative calm. Considering the outcome, her anger is only simmering. When things begin to go south for the world-class athlete who’s playing an opponent nearly half her age, she launches her racket to the ground out of frustration. With the mangled racket front and center on the screen, she is awarded a second violation. Again, Williams is trailing Osaka who is playing with daring moxie. Now she unleashes on the umpire, scolding and threatening him. She engages him and when he answers, she shuts him down telling him to stop talking to her. When she doesn’t get the apology she’s bitterly seeking, she calls him a thief for taking a point from her and storms off. The umpire retaliates by calling another violation for verbal abuse by awarding the game to Williams’s stoic opponent. To my mind, Williams exhibits the classic escalation of an unchecked temper and ego in the face of disappointment.

Here are a few of the most memorable quotes from the tantrum that followed:

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair. This is not fair.”

“Because I’m a woman you take this away from me?”

“Do you know how many men do much worse out here?”

She cries sexism. Already, she is being hailed as a true hero in the women’s movement. Tennis great, Billy Jean King has come out thanking Serena Williams for exposing a double standard. The National Organization for Women has called the episode with Williams “an abhorrent display of male dominance and discrimination.”

Seriously? On the playground, we used to call it being a sore loser. I’ve refereed battles between my own elementary school-aged kids who use the same exact language that this tennis legend touted in the US Open.

“But mommy! It’s not fair! This is NOT FAIR!”

“Because I’m the oldest/ youngest/ a boy/ a girl you take this away from me?!”

“My brother/sister has done much worse and they don’t EVER get punished!”

Williams even invoked her own daughter at one point, explaining that she stands for what’s right for her daughter’s sake. But this is not the model I want for my own daughter. What if we all compared our bad actions to others’ as a way to justify them? We’ve all done it at one point I imagine. Who hasn’t tried to get out of a jam by pointing out that others have done much worse? But who are we kidding? Can Asia Argento, a fallen heroine of the #metoo movement, explain away the crime she’s accused of, statutory rape of a 17-year-old costar, by pointing to all the horrific assaults and abuses committed by Harvey Weinstein? How would the world court respond if she said, “But he did much worse! This is happening to me because I’m a woman. Men do a lot worse than this!” What she did is bad. She is accused of victimizing a teenager. The sheer amount of what he did is worse. But that doesn’t negate the horrific act that she is accused of perpetrating.

It’s so disturbing to see someone unravel and completely lose their composure after a setback, whether their name is Roger, Johnny Mac, or Serena. In fact, her being a woman and a new mom made me want to see her succeed even more. I suspect most moms who have ever carried around extra weight after a pregnancy were truly rooting for this superstar who had made such strides as a woman, a mother, and an athlete. To come back and play at such a high standard at the advanced sporting age of 36 shortly after giving birth—My oh my! I could barely manage to wash my hair within the first year after my oldest was born. But this kind of poor sportsmanship is not what I want for my little girl. She’s a tough cookie! While I try to treat my kids equally, it’s virtually impossible to always be perfectly even-handed. There are times my punishment will be more harsh with one versus another. But that doesn’t mean I let her slide. I expect great things from her. I will never lower the bar. When she screws up, I won’t let her tell me her brothers have done much worse. I love her too much to accept that.

If I were Serena’s friend, I might tell her, “It’s hard to have righteous indignation when you haven’t acted righteously.” As Christians, we should learn to compare ourselves to those who challenge us to be better, to do the right thing, especially when it’s hard. We need to look to the saints. True freedom isn’t choosing evil. Free will is choosing to do the good and just thing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it beautifully.

“By free will one shapes one’s own life. Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude.” —1731 CCC

Serena Williams’ response to legitimate disappointment was neither good nor mature. I feel for the young woman whose big win was overshadowed by all the hullaballoo from her losing opponent. Naomi Osaka had to watch her tennis idol devolve in a tailspin of anger. And now her legendary grand slam victory will be forever clouded and muddled by a temper tantrum that is being heralded as an act of heroism for all women. Not for Naomi. Not for my daughter. Not for me.

*Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

16 thoughts on “Serena Williams Doesn’t Speak for My Daughter or Me”

  1. So well put! A strong woman would apologize for melting down. A humble woman would own her mistake. A world class athlete would apologize for casting a cloud of distraction that disrupts the victory celebration of the next generation of greats in her sport. And a person seeking change would infact say its not about what punishments are levied against them in comparision to others. Rather, they would say that decorum and being an example for all, even after an epic meltdown, is much more important. She can still show the world the Christian ideal so beautifully illustrated by saints throughout history; to do what is right even when its hard. My prayer is that she can step up to this challenge. She is an amazingly strong human being and a great in her field. I hope she can lead this conversation in a better direction.

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  2. Her behavior exhibits the selfish “I must have it all” philosophy that pervades our culture. We must all set priorities. Sometimes having children and raising a family means we need to take our focus away from other things like career. She does not represent women’s rights. She represents Serena. If she represented women’s rights, then she would have lost with class and afterwards she would have told women and girls that life isn’t always about winning and that having children and raising a family is more important than winning a tennis match.

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  3. It’s important to critically evaluate “cries” of sexism (or even just claims of them), as well as poor behavior. But Serena’s poor behavior does not automatically disprove unjust sexism. She behaved poorly, and should apologize. But there exists in professional tennis a glaringly different standard for men and women athletes, in terms of what constitutes acceptable emotional reactions (and even outbursts). It’s entirely possible for us as bystanders to call out poor behavior, while at the same time calling out unjust practices, in whatever arena.

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    1. Karen, my perception is that she did throw out the sexism claim rather flippantly in the heat of disappointment and anger. It’s a serious accusation that requires calm and clear thought. But you are right that I don’t know a lot about tennis and the overall treatment of women in the sport. And you’re bang-on, regarding the possibility of displaying “poor behavior, while calling out unjust practices.” I think emotional outbursts are understandable, but I don’t think we can justify them by saying others have done a whole lot worse. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!

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    2. Karen, nobody said that “Serena’s poor behavior … automatically disprove[s] unjust sexism,” so that claim is just a straw man. Moreover, this incident hardly shows that Serena was the victim of some sexist double standard, since the whole point of her bullying tactics was to beat a woman who was indisputably playing by the rules.

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