Last weekend, Serena Williams faced Naomi Osaka in the U.S. Open Women’s Final, a match where the quality of play was overshadowed by the umpire. Williams was penalized for breaking a racket, receiving hand signals from her coach, and defending those violations to the umpire. Williams received a point penalty for smashing her racket and a game penalty after calling the referee a thief.
After the match, Williams claimed that her penalties were another example of sexism in sports. Yes, she violated the rules, but those rules are not enforced equally. “He’s never taken a game from a man because they said ‘thief,’” Williams said after the match. “It blows my mind.”
Since this match, I have seen countless sportspeople—mostly men—debate whether sexism played a role in this incident. And for me, it evokes a similar feeling to when men sit around and debate women’s health. It’s not an issue for them, so it’s not an issue.
I’m not saying men shouldn’t talk about this. I’m not even saying they have to agree with Williams, although plenty of men have taken her side. What amazes me about the discussion surrounding these events is how quickly some men are willing to deny Williams’ experience even when countless female athletes have expressed similar sentiment. What amazes me is how some people seem to deny sexism in sports altogether, even when women are screaming about it.
Billie Jean King penned an Op-Ed in the Washington Post on September 9th in support of Williams. King wrote, “Did Ramos treat Williams differently than male players have been treated? I think he did. Women are treated differently in most arenas of life. This is especially true of women of color. And what played out on the court yesterday happens far too often… Ultimately, a woman was penalized for standing up for herself.”
Elena Delle Donne, a WNBA MVP, took to Instagram shortly after the match. She wrote, “What @serenawilliams is saying here is 100% accurate. Women are expected to act a certain way and carry themselves ‘appropriately.’” While Megan Rapinoe didn’t comment on the officiating specifically, she tweeted to Williams, “THANK YOU for the way you carry yourself as a beautiful, powerful, badass woman! You are ALWAYS paving the way.”
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It is no secret how strongly I feel about women’s equality and the lack there of. What @serenawilliams is saying here is 100% accurate. Women are expected to act a certain way and carry themselves “appropriately.” This is a perfect example. Serena shows passion and her true feelings and is penalized. Let’s face it… if a man did this same exact thing you would all be bowing down to him. It is so sad to me to see those that want to act like they believe in equality not supporting a female that has been put in this situation. Sadly this has taken so much glory away from @naomiosakatennis and regardless she earned the trophy! We are all in this fight together as women and the most important thing we can do is support one another. It’s just very unfortunate this male chair umpire took her shine. Congratulations to Naomi.
“Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person” – @serenawilliams THANK YOU for the way you carry yourself as a beautiful, powerful, badass woman! You are ALWAYS paving the way.
— Megan Rapinoe (@mPinoe) September 8, 2018
We’ve seen this debate around the double-standard of civility in women’s soccer too, most notably when Hope Solo had her contract terminated following the 2016 Olympics, where she called the Swedish national team “cowards.” While Solo has not commented on the incident at the U.S Open, the discussion around her contract termination was similar to the discussion around Williams. As Shireen Ahmed wrote in the Guardian, “The goalkeeper’s remarks after crashing out of the Olympics were tactless, but her suspension proves female athletes are unjustly held to a higher standard.”
Even within the 2018 U.S Open, this was not the only notable example of sexism. Alizé Cornet, a French player ranked No. 31 in the world, was given a code violation after changing her shirt during a break. Cornet was returning to the court after a ten-minute break due to the heat, and when she realized her shirt was on backwards, she simply took it off and put it on correctly. For this, she received a code violation, even though men remove their shirts on the court all the time.
So, I’m not saying that people have to agree with Williams’ assessment of the penalties during the U.S. Open Final. But if they are going to disagree with her, they must find a way to do it that does not underestimate the difficulties that Williams and other female athletes deal with every day, on and off the court.
I think Martina Navratilova found that balance in her Op-Ed for the New York Times. Navratilova started the piece by acknowledging that Williams was correct to point out that “there is a huge double standard for women when it comes to how bad behavior is punished.” But she went on to question whether behavior such as calling the umpire names or breaking your racket should be acceptable in the sport as a whole. Navratilova strikes that balance between disagreeing with Williams actions and reactions, while also acknowledging that Williams has always been treated as an outsider in the game of tennis.
You can disagree with Navratilova. You can disagree with Williams. But by focusing on this one event, and choosing to debate whether or not Williams experienced sexism, people seem to be forgetting the bigger picture. Women face rampant discrimination in sports. Often times, this discrimination is perpetrated without shame or denial. If you’re a woman or color or a woman in the LGBT community or a member of any other group that faces discrimination, your road to success becomes even harder.
Female athletes know this. That’s why as Williams situation unfolded, they took to social media and traditional media outlets to express their support. Even Navratilova, who disagreed with Williams on some points, did so in a way that respected the challenges she has faced.
Williams is trying to tackle this discrimination head-on. “I’m going to continue to fight for women… The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman and they’re gonna be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
Billie Jean King supported the importance of Williams words and actions. “I hope every single girl and woman watching yesterday’s match realizes they should always stand up for themselves and for what they believe is right. Nothing will ever change if they don’t.”
Listen to the women, folks. It’s not that hard.