Blame game won't solve Serena strife

Serena Williams (AP)
Serena Williams (AP)

When we asked listeners and Twitter followers of Breakfast With Martin Bester (where I'm the sport host) if Serena Williams was a victim of sexism at the US Open, the overwhelming response during Monday morning's show was, "No."

When I first watched the footage on Sunday morning, I also didn't think her claim of sexism was justified. Unfair refereeing, yes, but we often discuss examples of controversial referee decisions in football and rugby.

In fact, it was the desperately sad trophy presentation which had me in tears. I wasn't clear on the ITF's rule book as far as code violations and penalties go, so it didn't feel fair to judge right away. Therefore, I started googling and came to a few conclusions.

READ: ITF backs umpire over Serena rant

1. Serena's reference to her daughter tripped many people up, because they didn't find this relevant. But it reminded me of a quote from one of her opponents during a press conference once. While preparing to serve for a big point, this opponent would often start with a simple question: "What would Serena do?"

There are many daughters of Serena out there, not only in tennis. Young women who take their cue from someone who has broken through nearly every ceiling.

2. I found plenty of videos which show male tennis players having a go at an umpire. Roger Federer told Jake Garner "stop fucking talking to me", during the 2009 US Open men's final. No game penalty there. Williams only called Ramos a thief. Imagine the outcry if she had actually been cursing?

You can honestly disappear down an internet rabbit hole of videos proving all kinds of sexism, racism and a myriad of umpire inconsistencies in action. In fact, you'll find endless examples of referees in all sports treating people unfairly, discriminating in their application of the rules and - perhaps even worse - simply getting it dead wrong. The examples, much as in the real world, are endless.

Ask almost any woman and she'll be able to regale you with gender war stories. On how she was minimised in a boardroom or whipped back into place with a harsh remark about her appearance. Or how she was - quite literally - told to stop wearing heels, because she "didn't need to be so tall". Or complimented on how impressive it is, that she knows so much about a topic "for a woman".

I've had all of these happen to me, some examples even tend to repeat themselves. Often.  

But as long as we have human umpires or referees in sport, we will be served examples of this. On courts, pitches, fields and tracks around the world. Prejudice is rife, ask anyone who is on the "wrong" side of any classification.

I think there might just be an opportunity here for everyone to be right and wrong, all at once.

Serena Williams has a fiery temper and her entire career could be classed as an act of defiance. Could she have held her composure and not smashed a racquet? Yes. Could she have kept quiet? Yes.

Carlos Ramos stuck to the letter of the law. But could he have de-escalated matters? Yes.

Ramos might not intentionally be oppressing anyone, based on the colour of their skin, their gender or any other factor. But that doesn't mean his actions didn't have that effect.

He stole Naomi Osaka's moment, because you have read more than 500 words and her name hasn't been mentioned once.

The true hero on the night might actually be Osaka, who retained her focus throughout - something Williams clearly battled with - and managed to step up into the bright lights of a Grand Slam final at the age of 20 to defeat her hero.

Is throwing a rule book around and apportioning blame the best way to solve an issue as complex as this? Probably not.

For the record: It is Osaka who used to ask herself what Serena would do, before big points. One has to wonder what she would have done, had she been in Serena's shoes instead. 

- Smit works as a leading sport broadcaster and administrator. Follow her on Twitter: @Elmakapelma

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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