What Martina Navratilova and Mary Carillo Got Wrong

on

We Need to Stop Criticizing Serena Williams and Build a #Timesup Movement for Women in Sports.

Watching the 2018 US Open Finals, there’s no disputing that Serena Williams deserved the two penalty calls for coaching and breaking her racket. This is where the penalties should have ended. Next, Williams’ emotion exploded as she felt she was being called a cheater. She pointed while yelling at umpire Carlos Ramos and called him a “thief.”  Meanwhile, Ramos was unable to calm the situation and further escalated the already “out-of-control” situation by calling a third penalty that took a game away from Williams. Unfortunately, she lost her focus and the match. 

We need to give credit to relative newcomer Naomi Osaka for playing her heart out in these difficult circumstances to win her first Grand Slam Tournament.  Williams did her best to calm the crowd down and stop the booing throughout the stands and put the focus back on Naomi, the first Japanese woman to win a Grand Slam Tournament. Williams’ usual sportswoman-like behavior returned before the awards ceremony as we watched tears streaming down Williams and Osaka’s faces.  In fact, USTA president commented after the trophy presentation, ”What Serena did on the podium today show a great deal of class and sportsmanship.”

Ramos, on the other hand, has encountered repeated instances of male tennis players railing at him, using expletives, without blinking an eye or giving them a penalty. Martina Navratilova points out in her New York Times opinion piece that it is common for referees to give players a soft warning about coaching, yet gives Ramos a pass for not choosing this choice.

In the same piece, Navratilova dredges up Serena Williams’ old un-sportswoman-like behavior, which she has worked hard to change. Naively, Navratilova asks the question, “Is there a double standard in tennis?” Of the four tiers of tennis tournaments, male and female tennis players only get the same payout in the top two tiers.  This is just a small portion of the inequities female players face. In addition, Mary Carillo suggests that “Williams occasionally acts like a bully.” 

Serena Williams speaks up for women athletes in a much needed direct and forceful manner.  Women athletes need advocates like Williams: otherwise, we will continue to not be seen or heard.  In my opinion, Ramos’ was the bully.  His aggressive actions are a perfect example of the double standard female tennis players still endure.  With Williams, this appeared to make up a triple standard, given her status as an African American female athlete women’s rights’ leader.

What Navratilova and Carillo have missed is the fact that not only is Serena a strong woman’s rights advocate but she is also African American.  Due to the strong powerful female athlete that she has become, she constantly faces microaggressions from the public.

In a 2017 study by two researchers (Allen & Frisby), the research looked at microaggressions, such sexism, racism, sexual objectification, and treatment as second-class citizens, toward females increased between the 2012 and 2016 Olympics by almost 40 percent.  What Navratilova and Carillo have missed is the fact that not only is Serena a strong woman’s rights advocate but she is also African American.  Due to the strong powerful female athlete that she has become, she constantly faces microaggressions from the public.  In 2017, researcher Dr. Cynthia Frisby at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism conducted a pilot study to compare the amount of microaggressions that black vs. white tennis players’ experience. She compared news stories about Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber. She reviewed 643 new stories about Williams and Kerber.  The results reflect a massive exclamation point.  Angelique received 18 microaggressions.  In stark contrast, Serena received 758.  This not only illustrates sexism but that racism exists alive and well in 2018.

This is where I believe that both Navratilova and Carillo missed the boat.  They grew up in a generation where female athletes were supposed to tolerate the abusive verbal and unequal treatment by refs and coaches. Somehow, men always had the final say.  We were taught to stand and stay silent when coaches and refs yelled. I grew up in that same generation, but times have changed. In our current climate, females in sports need to stand up and shout out to be heard.  Killing them with silence just doesn’t work. Now, some coaches are beginning to take note about differences between female and male athletes.  In my first book, Sisterhood in Sport:  How Females Athletes Collaborate and Compete, I discussed how women are psychologically different in their responses to situations. There is importance in knowing these differences when supporting, understanding, and coaching female athletes.   

This is where I believe that both Navratilova and Carillo missed the boat.  They grew up in a generation where female athletes were supposed to tolerate the abusive verbal and unequal treatment by refs and coaches. Somehow, men always had the final say.  We were taught to stand and stay silent when coaches and refs yelled. I grew up in that same generation, but times have changed.

As a sports psychologist, I’ve worked extensively with female athletes.  Repeatedly, I’ve heard stories about the mistreatment of girls and women by coaches, referees, and others through such actions as yelling, threatening, and putting players down in front of their teammates. Through using fear and intimidation, girls may be marred for life.  The impact of this behavior creates self-doubt, self-criticism, and second guessing of their decisions. In fact, this level of rigid aggression that Ramos used illustrates the power referees may have over top female athletic competitors face on a regular basis.  This undermines self-confidence and mental strength in a player.  This takes away the benefit girls and women garner from sports participation. This prevents girls and women from developing the worth that they might attain from sports participation.

In my work with athletes, verbally abused women participate in an environment of fear, preventing them from taking risks and moving forward in their athletic careers.  These doubts and lack of self-confidence block their achievement of top performances.  Their mindset tends toward negativity and self -sabotaging behavior. Even amazing athletes like Williams have strong reactions to their own issues.  In her case, we observed that  “honesty” is her trigger.  She felt personally attacked and Ramos’ actions only escalated the situation.  This interfered with her focus and concentration possibly costing her the match.

This is the generation of #Timesup and #MeToo. In 2018, this is where women in sport and business, especially Serena Williams, are speaking up when they believe they’ve been wronged.  The time has arrived for female athletes to speak up about the thousands of inequities that female athletes and women in sports face.

This is the generation of #Timesup and #MeToo. In 2018, this is where women in sport and business, especially Serena Williams, are speaking up when they believe they’ve been wronged.  The time has arrived for female athletes to speak up about the thousands of inequities that female athletes and women in sports face.  I’ll give you, Williams’ yelling was not the best behavior but she contained her words to rather mild ones.  She powerfully and directly called the man merely a “thief.”  Yet, how many times have we heard male tennis players repeatedly yell expletives at Ramos and other tennis referees without any penalties?

I’m surprised and disappointed that the tennis umpires are not using this as a learning moment rather than threatening a boycott against Serena Williams.  The bullies are still taunting the power and strength that Serena Williams emanates. This is a time for them to examine and reflect on how they treat male vs. female tennis players. Asking such questions as:  Do I treat them the same?  Do I let men yell at me more without penalties, even using expletives?  Are strong women and especially black women intimidating to me? 

This is a time for male and female tennis players to step up to support Serena, as seen in tweets by Andy Roddick and James Blake.  Thank you, Billie Jean King for recognizing the double-standard posed toward Serena.  Billie Jean King tweeted, “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it.  When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions.” Going forward, we need to quit giving men the benefit of the doubt and begin paying more attention to giving female athletes’ more equitable treatment.


Joan Steidinger, CMPC-AASP, is a sports psychologist and an athlete. She is the author of Sisterhood in Sports: How Female Athletes Collaborate and Compete and the forthcoming Stand Up and Shout Out: Women in Sport Demand Equality.

More you may like