The U.S. Open tennis tournament has become the latest culture war battlefield. During the women’s final, Serena Williams was assessed a game penalty for insulting the umpire, which contributed to her loss to 20-year-old Naomi Osaka. A furious Williams claimed that she was being punished due to a double standard that penalizes women while letting men get away with bad behavior.
A number of feminist and left-wing commentators, not to mention a flock of outraged people in the social media, have backed up her claim of sexism. But a look at the facts shows that Williams was almost certainly not a victim of bias. If anyone is doing women a disservice, it’s her defenders, who are sending the message that a woman who behaves badly can find sympathy by playing the gender card.
Some accounts of the dispute between Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos have presented a highly sanitized picture of Williams’ outburst. Thus, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, who read sexist motives into Ramos’ decision to discipline Williams (“He wasn’t going to let a woman talk to him that way”), quoted Williams only as saying, “You stole a point from me. You’re a thief.” But that comment was part of a much longer rant. Williams, who was enraged when Ramos cited her for receiving illicit signals from her coach and then for breaking her racket in frustration, also called Ramos a “liar” and repeatedly demanded an apology.
As proof that Ramos has “put up with worse from a man,” Jenkins pointed out that at the 2017 French open, he gave no extra penalty to Spanish player Rafael Nadal for saying that Ramos would never referee one of his matches again. But Williams told Ramos the same thing — “You will never be on a court with me as long as you live”— and compounded it with verbal abuse.
Other examples of double standard cite single remarks by male players as equivalent to Williams’ escalating conduct. On Twitter, where discussion is rarely bound by facts, Williams defenders asserted that tennis’ famous bad boy John McEnroe never paid a price for his legendary tantrums. In fact, McEnroe racked up numerous penalties and was once thrown out of the Australian Open.
People also saw sexism in the fact that the media described Williams as having a “meltdown” when men who express anger under similar circumstances are supposedly described as “passionate” or “intense.” Yet a Google search will yield plenty of news stories in which the word “meltdown” is applied to temperamental male players. (Just two weeks ago, a USA Today headline referred to “8 bizarre Nick Kyrgios meltdowns.”)
It’s bad enough when Twitter “experts” make claims out of thin air. But Williams’ spurious and self-serving accusations of sexism were also backed by the Women’s Tennis Association and by women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King.
Yet commentators who have analyzed actual facts and statistics conclude that it’s extremely difficult to tell whether there is gender bias in penalties for violations. To some extent, umpiring is subjective, especially on things like inappropriate coaching. There is probably a need for more consistent enforcement across the board.
Ramos, who has a reputation of being extremely strict with everyone, may have been partly at fault in the confrontation. But that does not excuse the unsportsmanlike conduct by Williams, who has a history of ugly verbal abuse toward tournament officials (mostly women). People who believe that men in our culture are favored by a “boys will be boys” mentality seem to be promoting their own brand of sexism: “Girls will be girls.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.