Serena Williams and Sportsmanship

By Alex Chediak Published on September 16, 2018

Serena Williams’ 2018 U.S. Open Final loss was a surprise. But the way it unfolded — with three code violations, including a game penalty — was an even bigger surprise. Social media erupted in debate as the events unfolded. The discussion extended to whether women receive equal treatment in sports, given Williams’ claim of sexism.

The larger lessons, though, deal with the value of sportsmanship.

What Happened

The U.S. Open is one of four Grand Slam events in tennis. These are the biggest tournaments in the sport. Code violations at the U.S. Open come with specific penalties. The first one results in a warning. The second, a point penalty. The third, a game penalty. The umpire does not chose these penalties. They’re laid out in the official rule book.

The rule book forbids coaching: “Players shall not receive coaching during a match (including the warm-up).” So when Chair Umpire, Carlos Ramos, noticed Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou making hand gestures, he called a code violation.

It’s not clear whether Williams saw her coach’s hand gestures. But that doesn’t matter according to the rule book. Mouratoglou was coaching, as he later admitted. Perhaps other umpires would have let it go. Or given a “soft warning” as former champion Martina Navratilova has suggested. But Ramos is known for being a stickler.

As the match progressed, Williams smashed her racket after losing a point. Racket abuse is a code violation. Because this was Williams’ second violation, she was assessed a point penalty.

This seemed to take Williams by surprise, as if she hadn’t realized that the prior warning had been official. After that prior warning, Williams had told Ramos that she’d “rather lose than cheat” and that she could “see why he thought she was getting coaching.” It had been a civil dialog. But now that a point penalty was assessed, things took a nasty turn.

Williams’ angry remarks to Ramos occurred over a period of time, with some tennis played in between, after which Williams would reengage Ramos on the subject. Williams demanded an apology for “accusing her of cheating.” She ultimately called Ramos a liar and a thief. That got her a third code violation: A game penalty. Soon after Williams lost the match.

Sexism?

Does sexism occur in a fallen world? Sure. It’s unfortunate. It’s wrong. It should be opposed. But was this an example of sexism? I’m convinced that any male player in today’s game, if he behaved as Williams did, would have received the same treatment from Carlos Ramos. There’s nothing in Ramos’ history to suggest otherwise. He’s been a tough cookie on men, too. All three code violations were real.

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The question shouldn’t be: If men can get away with abusive behavior, why can’t women? Instead, let’s not let either of them get away with it. Let’s call athletes to honor their sport and to recognize the responsibilities that come with competing on the highest stages.

Sportsmanship

We are God’s image bearers in this world. We admire great athletes because they reflect something of God’s greatness. The power, the strength, the beauty they display in their sport is awesome to see — and it points us beyond the athletes to the God who fearfully and wonderfully made us (Psalm 139:14).

There’s also a measure of self-control in athletic greatness. In tennis, you can’t just hit the ball, you have to hit it in the right place. It’s a game of inches. Miss by a little and you’re likely to lose the point. Baseball players have to avoid chasing pitches that veer well outside the strike zone. You can sack the quarterback, but if you rough the passer, it’s a stiff penalty. Power must always be mixed with restraint.

Self-control is needed in handling setbacks. A missed point, a missed shot, a missed tackle, a strikeout — you have to shake it off and keep going. Mental toughness. What’s odd about the Serena Williams thing is that she simply would not let it go. She took the coaching violation so personally. It had just been a warning. Maybe it was nit-picky. Leave that to the analysts to discuss later. You are the most accomplished athlete in the history of your sport. Let it go.

Athletes need to remember that millions of fans are watching. They’re watching not just whether you win or lose but how you compete. They will imitate you, for better or for worse. In sports, being a role model is not something you choose. It’s something that chooses you if you’re lucky enough to compete on the highest stages.

When I watch sports I’m hoping to see not just athletic greatness but greatness of character. Self-mastery, humility, respect for authority, respect for opponents, a desire to lift-up teammates rather than just promote self. Someone who understands that there’s more at stake than winning or losing.

Because here’s the thing: Try as a might, I will never play a sport as well as the athletes I watch on TV. Is it too much to ask that they behave in ways that I can and should imitate?

 

Dr. Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediakhttp://www.alexchediak.com).

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