SERENA & SEXISM IN SPORTS: OUR LONG JOURNEY TO THE END

Tennis icon and record-breaking athlete Serena J. Williams lost her 24th Grand Slam title last weekend in a highly controversial match at the U.S Open finals. In what should have been a happy union for the 20 year old champion Naomi Osaka and her idol, events spun quickly out of control when Williams was charged with a three-code violation that she and several others have since deemed unfair. The chair umpire Carlos Ramos had withdrawn points from Williams for receiving coaching from her coach in the stands, an accusation she vehemently denied. She called him “a thief” and demanded an apology. Things escalated quickly when she was issued another code violation for racquet abuse and a point penalty to which she reacted, calling him “liar”. A game penalty was promptly issued by the obviously aggravated Ramos, securing a win for the very poised and impressive Naomi Osaka to the jeering of a pro-Williams audience.

Several allegations of sexism have been issued umpire Carlos Ramos since the heated game took place, resulting in a mixed uproar. Serena Williams in her post-match conference had accused the umpire of being sexist in issuing her code violations for an obvious emotional outburst when several male players had gotten away with worse. She stood by her resistance of the umpire’s “unfair” behavior and said she would continue to fight for the rights of women. Her claims have since been supported by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), with a statement to the effect saying “The WTA believes that there should be no difference in the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women”. The violations issued Williams were however upheld totaling the sum of $17,000 and she has been fined by the Tennis Association. The ensuing events may be termed catastrophic as these occurrences since the famed match has split the tennis community in two.

Sports analyst Christine Brennan says that the incident reflects that women are not treated equally. She cited examples of male players in history such as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Ilie Nastase, who all berated chair umpires and famously so. She added that “commercials have been made” and none got issued a game penalty. Famous tennis icon and equal rights advocate Billie Jean King also gave Serena her support saying “When a woman is emotional, she’s “hysterical” and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” & there are no repercussions. Thank you, Serena Williams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.” These strong voices have lent their strength to the growing debate against sexism and Serena’s unfair penalty but many others are clamoring to the defense of the umpire; players, fellow umpires, critics and the International Tennis Federation who have since issued a statement justifying the umpire’s decision and backed their stance up in the U.S Open’s decision to fine Williams for the three offenses.  Most inciteful was the recent publication by an Australian newspaper of a cartoon portraying Serena as an angry, tantrum-throwing child, stomping over a tennis racquet with a baby’s dummy lying loosely nearby. She was grotesquely depicted as mannish and petulant, her features deliberately expressed in ‘angry black woman’ metaphors. The umpire is shown to ask a wrongly depicted Osaka “Can you just let her win?”.

These occurrences seem to have touched on a widely sensitive subject, albeit in a staunchly regulated community- sports. Unfortunately and quite significantly, Williams who has been the image of the sport’s world –class repute has to bear the brunt of such vital transition. Sexism in sports has been a long standing issue and still remains very common today. Men are paid way more than their female counterparts who have done twice as much to prove themselves, there is a wide gender margin in the participation of elite sports and rampant cases of discrimination and harassment of women players. In the just concluded Grand Slams, men play five sets while women can only compete over three. These practices are rooted in a history of segregation and sexism, a fact of which the sports community had proudly upheld. The women in history who have broken this stereotype have only served as a crack in the great wall of gender limitations. The term “you play like a girl” has served to fuel these underlying notions that have really never left. The question is not that women can do equally well; that’s already been proven.  It’s more about, what are they really afraid of? Can lasting change really disrupt more than the havoc that’s already been created? Serena’s epic loss will be a tale of legends as it now appears. Of the ugly truths, rants, jeers and tears. Of our long winding journey to the end of sexism and the beginnings of equality and fairness… at last.

Abiodun Odusola
abiodunodusola@ymail.com
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