My interests in sports when I was very young were all over the place. A lot of them were influenced by what I had access to knowledge about; even though I’ve never cared that much for soccer, I still remember reading about Pelé a lot simply because my local library had lots of books about him. My early love for the Detroit Tigers was likely due to seeing them all over the place as a result of their 1984 season and World Series victory, and when my family got cable and ESPN, I fell hard for Australian Rules Football as soon as I saw those early VFL highlight shows on Saturday mornings.
Tennis was another one of those sports that I didn’t have much interest in during my early years, but which I absorbed a lot about by osmosis, mostly thanks to being around it. My family’s summer vacations usually coincided with the last week of Wimbledon, so even though my parents didn’t care for tennis, I saw a lot of it thanks to those final Wimbledon matches always being on televisions around me due to my tennis-loving relatives wanting to watch them. I can still remember cheering for Chris Evert to beat Martina Navratilova every summer (and almost always being disappointed), simply because of that strain of unthinking jingoism that’s so common among American youth (which, sadly, fewer and fewer Americans are growing out of these days).
I got to see John McEnroe at the prime of his career, and even if I hadn’t had so much tennis around me during my summer vacations, McEnroe is one of those figures that probably would have caught my young attention anyway, because his famous outbursts transcended the sporting world. This was a time when trash-talking in sports was not only much less common than it is now, but it also wasn’t really talked about, with the exception of Muhammad Ali, although there should be a huge asterisk by Ali’s name there since Ali’s skill with words transcended not just sports, but the English language itself. McEnroe’s vocal (and loud) on-court complaints were such an anomaly that I wonder if he and Ali led to me becoming so fascinated with the WWF at around the same time.
As with modern debates about athletes’ speech — both related to what happens during games, and speech outside of games such as recent athlete protests — many people point to standards of decorum to argue that athletes should just, for lack of a more succinct phrase, “shut up and play,” and Wimbledon is practically synonymous with “decorum” in sports due to its rich history and culture. When I was younger, though, I was more interested in the practicality of McEnroe arguing calls. The USFL, or at least its use of instant replay, eluded my radar at the time, so I wondered how else referees and umpires were supposed to know that they’d gotten a call wrong if athletes like McEnroe didn’t complain. If nothing else, McEnroe yelling at umpires entertained me a lot more than a game where I was still trying to figure out why game scores went from 15 to 30 and then to 40, and why they used words like “love” and “deuce” that made no sense to my young mind.
Even today, when I go back and look at those old videos of McEnroe yelling, they hold a charm that goes beyond nostalgia. Those clips have arguably overshadowed a very remarkable tennis career, but there’s an argument to be made that McEnroe’s voice provided a necessary questioning of authority that helped redefine sports fans’ expectations of referee/umpire power, that forced both die-hard sports fans and casual viewers to confront the fallibility of authority figures, and think about what sports leagues should do when referees or umpires make provably incorrect decisions. Were it not for athletes like McEnroe, who spoke out loudly at perceived injustices during their contests, perhaps instant replay wouldn’t have been adopted so quickly by so many sports leagues in the years that followed, and just as Ali and McEnroe transcended the world of sports with the power of their words, it could be argued that McEnroe was a broader counter-cultural icon, standing in sharp contrast to the conservative conformity of the 1980’s.
In the decades that have followed, athletes’ on-field speech, and sports viewers’ expectations of it, have evolved considerably, not only for interactions with authority figures but also for displays of bravado, such as trash-talking opponents and the rules governing touchdown celebrations in the NFL. Although the current debate about athletes’ speech outside of game time is possibly the most vitriolic of my lifetime, it still appears that expectations of speech during games has changed considerably, and that athletes contesting authority figures’ decisions is more tolerable now than it used to be at the height of McEnroe’s tennis career, but that could easily change with the near-constant clashes of authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism in American culture these days.
Even in this era of sports, however, old divisions remain. I can still remember the uproar when the Canadian women’s hockey team celebrated their 2010 Olympic gold medal victory with beer and cigars, and although there is an amateur-versus-professional distinction that could be made, the “propriety” of female athletes smoking and drinking was talked about in a way that was never seen when male athletes like Michael Jordan and my beloved 1997 Detroit Red Wings lit cigars after their championship victories. Much has been written about reactions to the initial news of Tiger Woods’ infidelity, and how the colour of his skin shaped not just people’s reactions to it, but also how those news stories were framed by reporters; these are only a few examples, but particularly in light of current debates about athletes’ protests, it’s almost impossible to research any contemporary argument about athletes’ speech without closely examining how factors like skin colour and gender affect wider public reactions to that speech.
I haven’t seen my tennis-loving relatives in decades, so I haven’t exactly watched much of Serena Williams’ tennis career; however, because she and her sister Venus have transcended the tennis and sporting worlds, she’s an athlete that I know a great deal about. I’d read up on the controversy surrounding the bodysuit she wore in a recent match, and the medical reasons for it, so when I saw the initial headlines about her confrontations with an umpire at this past weekend’s US Open finals, I was already inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, simply because she’d already been through a lot of grief in recent weeks, and the first recaps I saw of the confrontation gave me a strong impression that I would side with Serena when I got to see video of that argument.
Needless to say, I wasn’t wrong. Had the story simply stopped with what happened on the court, I would have had a tremendous amount of sympathy for Serena, but later news of that $17,000 fine just pissed me off to no end. Having lived through the years when John McEnroe earned his “bad boy” reputation, there is no doubt in my mind that Serena is being treated more harshly because she isn’t a white male, and that if the same behaviour had been performed by someone like Novak Djokovic, or someone who looks like him, he would never have gotten a game penalty for arguing, let alone a ludicrous fine. Coming from a profession where expectations of skin colour and gender have demonstrably put African-American women at a disadvantage to other students at many schools, it’s far too easy to see the same mindsets at work in sports right now, both in terms of tennis officials’ actions and public reaction to Serena.
Because of the way our current president and his supporters ramp up the current debate over athlete protests to serve their political needs, Serena’s performance at the US Open will probably be forgotten about by most Americans in a matter of weeks. For those of us who have witnessed the long modern history of discrimination against African-American women in so many aspects of society, however, we will not be so quick to forget. The underlying forces behind the mistreatment of Serena are no different than those affecting African-American women across the country, then and now and in the future, and as long as those forces continue to act in such abhorrent ways, let alone with the impunity that they’ve displayed under the current administration, then it is up to the rest of us to remember what happened to Serena, and how it exemplifies some of the worst impulses and predilections of modern humanity.