Watch any male sports pre-game show and you are bound to see some kind of video montage opening the broadcast filled with clips of superstars showing intense emotions.
There are still shots of players yelling, screaming, taunting and gesturing. This kind of emotional outburst is celebrated and promoted as the kind of passion and intensity that can only come from a championship contest. Do a Google image search of Golden State Warriors All-Star forward “Draymond Green flexing” and you’ll see what I mean.
Now think about the sports figures who are a part of the “greatest of all time” conversations. Names like Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning all come to mind.
They are synonymous with greatness and emotion.
What happened to Serena Williams on Saturday during the U.S. Open final was nothing short of a disgrace — and I’m not just talking about her getting royally screwed by the presiding umpire, Carlos Ramos.
Breaking a bat, no problem
Ramos penalized Williams for an absurd infraction involving her coach “coaching,” which for reasons no one can really understand, is somehow not allowed in tennis. Just imagine the Golden State Warriors being penalized for Coach Steve Kerr daring to coach his team during a game. Williams, understandably frustrated, but very much in control and remarkably calm and poised given the magnitude of this match, told the official, “I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose, I’m just letting you know.”
After losing the next exchange with eventual Open champion Naomi Osaka, Williams threw her racket down in frustration and broke it. This would usually be a warning, but because of Ramos’s dubious coaching penalty earlier, Williams was given a very rare point-penalty for the racket infraction.
For context, imagine if in any other sport, like baseball, a team was penalized on the scoreboard for a player breaking their bat in frustration. When the Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis used his leg to snap his bat in half after striking out, he was met with comparisons to The Avengers’ “Incredible Hulk” and there was no penalty, no in-game infraction, no adverse impact on the team.
Williams, speaking with a tone of urgency but not anger, pleaded with Ramos, “I didn’t get coaching…you need to make an announcement that I didn’t get coaching. I don’t cheat…how can you say that. You owe me an apology…I have never cheated in my life…”
Mind you, with a potential history-making championship win on the line, Williams had yet to even utter an obscenity at Ramos, something we routinely see in other sports when there is a disagreement between a player and a referee.
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At this point, the situation had evolved into becoming more about Williams’ character than about the scoreboard, which Williams articulates, not screams, to Ramos, “For you to attack my character, is wrong…you owe me an apology. You are the liar. When are you going to give me an apology? You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too.” Ramos then invoked an unprecedented game penalty on Williams for what he called “verbal abuse.”
Throughout all of this, Williams was composed, restrained, and had not uttered a single syllable that would be considered offensive or questionable. The whole tone of these exchanges was more conversational than confrontational. And yet, the powers that be saw fit to penalize Williams not just a point, but a game.
When Steph Curry threw his mouthpiece off the court in the 2016 NBA Finals, the officials didn’t award the game to the Cavs.
Williams made the point to the referee, “to lose a game is not fair…do you know how many other men do things that are much worse than that? This is not fair. There’s a lot of men out here who have said a lot of things and because they are men – that doesn’t happen to them. This is unbelievable…because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me.”
Two words: John McEnroe
Somehow, Williams remained poised, calm and in control while making her case. She wasn’t gesticulating widely. She wasn’t cursing. Spit wasn’t flying out of her mouth. She wasn’t ranting or raving. She was the embodiment of restraint.
When the match was finally over and the crowd booing the living hell out of the officials and the 20-year-old champion Naomi Osaka, Williams instructed the crowd, “no more booing,” seeing the emotional toll the entire situation was putting on Osaka.
Men who curse, scream, gesture are ‘intense’
If enduring this blatant display of sexism wasn’t bad enough, there were those in the media who inexplicably decided to depict a downright distorted and sexist portrait of what transpired.
The New York Post tweeted: “Serena has mother of all meltdowns in US Open final loss.” Deadspin tweeted: “Sensitive ref pushes Serena Williams to melt down and ruins Naomi Osaka’s US Open victory” The BBC went with the headline, “Naomi Osaka wins after Serena Williams outburst,” which is really something given the multiple eruptions you’ll see from players and coaches during a regular season soccer match in the Premier League. Yahoo Sports published the headline, “Serena Williams’ outburst costs her at U.S. Open.”
Why is a male athlete who curses, poses, rants and raves celebrated for being “intense,” “passionate,” and “in the moment” while Serena Williams is vilified for “melting down” and having a so-called “outburst?”
Any other male athlete would have understandably lost it in this situation. LeBron James would have had a meltdown. Roger Federer would have had an outburst. There would have been, at the very least, a barrage of profanity-laced tirades directed at the official. Serena Williams kept her composure and dignity. Somehow, in this moment, she was cognizant of the broader implications for female athletes that will come after her and she maintained her grace.
Kurt Bardella is a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @kurtbardella