Greg Allen/Invision/AP
Serena Williams argues with the chair umpire during a match against Naomi Osaka, of Japan, during the women's finals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in New York. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)

How did Serena Williams go from being held up as the epitome of class in August to being the poster girl of bad sportsmanship in September?

Well, in August, the 36-year-old tennis star acted the way we expect women to behave, even in the face of an obviously sexist rule change that many argued was directly aimed at her.

In September, she called that same not-so-subtle sexism out.

In August, she was lauded for taking the high road in the face of sexism, which can also be referred to as not rocking the boat. In September, she dared to complain about what she views as sexist treatment by an official in her sport.

Sexism is real. In sports, it's an everyday reality.

It exists whether you believe in it or not.

It hurts people, holds them back, denies them opportunities, makes their lives more difficult and changes even the most straightforward challenges, and it doesn’t even need to be acknowledged to do so.

It is something people struggle to navigate, adding an extra layer of challenge to every area of life, especially athletics — no matter how rich, how famous, how graceful or how petulant.

The most convincing evidence that sexism — and racism — were at work in what happened to Williams in both cases comes not in what was done to her or how it compares to the treatment of her male counterparts, but also the reaction from media and fans that followed.

The same behavior that indicates passion and a competitive nature for the men of tennis (and really all sports) was labeled a "meltdown" and "tantrum" for Williams. The fact that so many writers and analysts blamed Williams for the crowd's reaction indicates just how willing we are to eviscerate a powerful woman when she doesn’t live up to the complex, sometimes contradictory, set of standards we’ve imposed on her.

First, in August, French Open officials voted to change their dress code to ban her custom-made (and Black Panther inspired) "catsuit," which she wore to deal with post-pregnancy blood clots. French Tennis Federation President Bernard Guidicelli singled her out, saying, “sometimes we’ve gone too far.”

Williams' response in this situation was labeled "classy."

“Guys, it’s fine,” she said during a press conference before the U.S. Open. “Obviously the Grand Slams have the right to do what they want, but I think if or when they know something is for health reason … I’m sure we would come to an understanding.”

And they did.

She did as she was told. She kept her mouth shut and played in an outfit that officials felt was more “respectful of the game.”

In September, however, she did no such thing.

In her U.S. Open finals loss to Naomi Osaka, Williams became angry at chair umpire Carlos Ramos when he issued her a warning for being "coached" from the stands.

Williams denied the charge, even though her coach admitted he was attempting to signal her. When she later smashed her racket in anger, she earned a second penalty, this one universally believed to be appropriate, but because it was her second offense, she lost a point.

That’s when she called Ramos a "thief" and demanded an apology. She didn’t swear at him or threaten him, but apparently Ramos felt that was enough to label her behavior “abusive” and take an entire game from her.

This is where the argument about fairness really lives. Not many of us defend arguing with officials to this degree, but many commentators and columnists decided that this was a "meltdown," a "tantrum" and a breach of sportsmanship so egregious that Williams shouldn’t just be knocked off that pedestal, she should be publicly shamed for turning the crowd against Osaka, who was visibly upset when fans booed during the award ceremony.

It is possible to believe Williams overreacted to the warning of coaching, which snowballed into losing a game — a penalty many top-level men with "bad boy" reputations said they’d never suffered in a similar situation — and still see sexism at work. In fact, the umpires recently demanded Williams apologize or they'd boycott her matches, but their statements cite displeasure with U.S. Open and other tennis officials rather than Williams' specific behavior. This kind of action wasn't threatened after any of the well-publicized issues with male players.

Former players mostly side with Williams, including Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Novak Djokovic, James Blake and Mardy Fish. Martina Navratilova and Mary Carillo were critical of Williams.

But the most compelling evidence that supports Williams’ claim that she is treated differently than the men came from a cartoon by Australian Mark Knight that depicts Williams with over-exaggerated nose, lips and size jumping on her racket (pacifier on the ground), while depicting Ramos as white and politely asking Osaka, who is the child of a Haitian father and Japanese mother, as thin, busty and blonde, “Can you just let her win?”

The cartoon was so offensive, I hesitated to even share it because I didn’t want the debate about sportsmanship to muddy what should be very clear waters.

In the week that has passed there have been countless columns and stories dissecting each aspect of the issue and coverage. What makes analyzing her claims of sexism difficult is that Williams’ behavior wasn’t ideal. It wasn’t what any of us would point out as good sportsmanship, and no one wants to just hide behind the reality that “men do it too” or “men have done worse without punishment” because that ignores the nuance of the way actual sexism and racism work.

Dismissing the episode as one in which a poor sport got what she deserved ignores the complicated reality women, especially women of color, grapple with every day. A number of articles point out Williams’ size and describe her as intimidating, which is a stereotype black women deal with on a daily basis.

The "angry black woman" stereotype isn’t just a matter of hurting someone’s feelings; it’s a matter of what opportunities are not open to women if those in power find them intimidating, unstable or too emotional.

For women who are trying to pursue careers in athletics, it can be impossible to find a balance between being true to themselves and being what the world says they can. In most athletically competitive situations, the attributes necessary for success are also not traditionally included in what the mostly male power structure (especially the media) views as appropriately feminine.

Williams, like the rest of us, isn’t perfect. But she’s demonstrated that while she sometimes loses her cool with officials, as do countless male and female athletes and coaches, she also demonstrates some really important positive traits. Even when she lost the 2009 U.S. Open to a penalty for verbally berating a line judge, she calmly walked over and congratulated her opponent. When Osaka was visibly upset by the crowd's boos, she comforted the 20-year-old and asked the crowd not to mar the young woman’s moment.

She is, as many sports stars are, a mixture of contradictions — of unbridled passion and impressive poise, of extreme discipline and selfish desire, of respecting the rules and embracing rebellion.

39 comments on this story

Some have said addressing her concerns at all would be dismissing or condoning any bad behavior on Williams’ part.

I couldn’t disagree more.

It would be a far more critical mistake to let any issue we have with how Williams handled the controversy keep us from addressing her very valid criticisms of tennis — and sport in general.

In reality, these are issues that are at work in all of our lives, and just like it has many other times, the games we love force us to confront that which we’d rather ignore and maybe don't even understand.