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Can Sport Exist in a Political Vacuum?

Madihah Murshed

Naked Politics Blogger

The latest controversy surrounding the dramatic events of the 2018 US Open final has reignited the debate over how appropriate it is to bring the messiness of identity politics into the world of professional sport.

The final witnessed Serena Williams receive three warnings from umpire Carlos Ramos for supposedly taking coaching direction, breaking her racket, and finally verbally abusing Ramos in a dispute over the accusations, for which Williams demanded an apology.

The match ended with Naomi Osaka being crowned in tears, the audience booing, and a social media storm over whether Williams was a victim of racism and sexism (or, ‘misogynoir’), or just a sore loser.

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If we are to take the incident at face value and judge it for what it was in the moment, I think both Ramos and Williams could have done things differently.

I am extremely dubious over the cheating allegation and empathise greatly with her need to fight for what she truly believed was right, but breaking a racket and shouting at the umpire are clear violations of the game’s regulations.

Equally, Ramos should have reconsidered his cheating allegation given Williams has the integrity and honesty as a well established professional at the top of her game to be trusted when she so vehemently denied the allegation.

However, whoever’s side you take, bemoaning the identity politics Williams brought into the conversation (when stating male tennis players have said much worse without being penalised) is short-sighted and ignorant of the wider context at play. This context is extremely important to understand if Williams’ whole tennis experience and her intense emotions during that match are to be fully appreciated, even if you don’t agree with her subsequent actions.

Case in point: after the match, a quite frankly astonishingly racist cartoon depicting the match was published by Melbourne’s Herald Sun (unsurprisingly owned by the less than savoury Rupert Murdoch).

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The cartoon is so disgusting it looks as if it belongs in a museum exhibition showcasing the blatant racism and misogyny of a slave-owning state from the eighteenth century. Indeed, the physical attributes given to cartoon Serena clearly draw heavily from the Sambo caricatures of black female slaves, with the exaggeratedly expansive nose, the giant and grotesque lips and tongue, and the hulking, bestial physique attributed to her.

Furthermore, her opponent, who in reality is also a woman of colour – Osaka is Haitian-Japanese – is depicted as being a meek and slender blonde white lady completely overpowered and helpless in the face of the aggressive, bull-in-a-china-shop personality of a black woman. That cartoon Osaka is contrasted with this portrayal as the lady-like, demure character we are evidently supposed to sympathise with further brings out the ugly shades of sexism permeating the image.

What makes this cartoon even more depressing is the fact that it is not an anomaly; rather it is part of a long-running narrative that exists, criticising Williams’ appearance as it diverges from what the misogynistic expectations of a woman are.

For example, US radio host Sid Rosenberg remarked on live air how he couldn’t watch Serena and her sister Venus play because ”I find it disgusting…They’re just too muscular. They’re boys.”

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Furthermore, only earlier this year, Williams was banned from wearing a purpose designed black bodysuit at the French Open despite the outfit being specially made to prevent blood clots forming given her health issues following her pregnancy.

What was to Williams a symbol of strength, making her feel “like a warrior”, which she likened to the fierce empowerment of the Black Panther film, was relegated to a mere cheap and unnecessarily sexualised garment by the catsuit ban issued by the French Tennis Association, needlessly creating a scandal where there was none.

The incident was not unlike French Tennis player Alizé Cornet being penalised for briefly taking her shirt off on court to fix it, despite male players being free to do the exact same. A strong sense of sexism clearly underlies both situations.

Of course, it must also be mentioned that Williams has been called up for drug tests more times than any other female tennis player. It would be extremely naïve to assume the motivation behind this was divorced from the colour of her skin.

The cumulative racism, misogyny, and double standards must be taken into account when viewing Williams’ frustration at Ramos’ calls in that final, proving how important it is to view sports in the context in which it exists.

Serena Williams is not operating in a political vacuum; rather she is subjected to the same issues that plague black people, women, and black women in our society as a whole.

Serena Williams remains a hero for so many not only because of her ferocious determination and magnificent skill, but also because she doesn’t shy away from using her platform and experiences to hold a mirror to the tennis world – and by extension, our world – to speak on the fractures she sees to fuel vital conversation we can no longer dismiss nor ignore.

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