Serena Williams situation is about more than sportsmanship

ball court design game

I am the Sportsmanship Guy and last weekend’s Women’s U.S. Open Final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams was right in my wheelhouse – or so I thought. This site is filled with stories about athletes losing their cool with officials, opponents and teammates.

When I watched Serena Williams confront chair umpire Carlos Ramos, alarm bells went off. An athlete or coach will not win an on-field showdown with an official. Some referees and umpires may allow more latitude than others, but it’s totally up to them. Sports lore is filled with inconsistent officiating because of the human element, so anyone can find video supporting any argument they want to make.

There was…I repeat…was a legitimate debate to be had about the interaction between Ramos and Williams and how they both affected the greatest match in Naomi Osaka’s life. That ended with the publication of a certain cartoon.

If you haven’t seen it, the Herald Sun newspaper published a cartoon showing Serena Williams jumping up and down on an already destroyed tennis racket while two characters who one could guess are supposed to be Naomi Osaka and Carlos Ramos discuss her behavior.

Ramos asks Osaka, “Can you just let her win?” The paper defends the piece as satire. It’s not. It’s racist to the core. Williams is not only shown throwing a tantrum reminiscent of a toddler, she’s also pictured as an overgrown, toothless, ape-like creature.

You cannot draw, speak of, write about or otherwise refer to black people as apes, monkeys, baboons or any other primate. It is racist behavior with roots that go back centuries. Black people were equated with apes to justify dehumanization. The criticism levied against the cartoonist and the newspaper is not political correctness gone awry.

Let me be clear: If you have a black friend and you refer to him or her as an ape, you will lose that black friend.

The cartoon shows the Haitian-Japanese Osaka as a blonde, white woman. Even the chair umpire, Carlos Ramos, a Portuguese national with a full head of hair, is depicted as a balding, white guy. The cartoon is what the women I care most about have been trying to tell me about how they feel when trying to stand up for themselves in the workplace, in social settings and in society in general.

Black women have to be fearless and docile, strong and submissive, seen and seldom heard. When a man, any man, raises his voice in frustration, his surroundings quiet down. People at least hear him out, whether they plan to address his issues or not.

Maybe Williams had a bad day. We all have them. Maybe it wasn’t just the young upstart Osaka or Ramos’ calls. Maybe it’s the constant needling of her wardrobe at tournaments or being called a man or the countless slights over a career where she’s cleared out the field of competitors multiple times.

But Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam Championships, made millions of dollars and is an international superstar. How bad could things really be? The best analogy I can make right now is to black performers of the 20th century like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. They headlined Las Vegas venues in front of sold out crowds, but were not allowed to stay in the hotels or eat at the restaurants where they performed.

Being black in America often means being loved for what you do and hated for who you are.

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