I don’t know how many of you got to see the Women’s Finals at the US Open at Flushing Meadows in New York; I have actually had the joy and privilege of taking my oldest daughter to the main stadium there, the Arthur Ashe stadium, a couple of times. It is a really exciting experience. But many of you know what happened on Saturday at the Women’s Final. Serena Williams was clearly being outplayed by the young up and coming Japanese tennis player, Naomi Osaka; Williams was clearly agitated and frustrated. And then, on top of that, she was given a violation from chair umpire Carlos Ramos for illegal coaching from her player box. Her coach did admit later on that he was in fact coaching and that Ramos was simply enforcing the rules of tennis. Ramos did nothing wrong, and he simply gave Williams a formal penalty, which amounts to a warning. And she just freaks out, utterly and completely freaked out. She accused Ramos of accusing her. Remember that she accused Ramos of accusing her of cheating and she called his character into question for calling her character into question.
She seemed incapable of brushing off the penalty, and so when she lost the next game, she smashed her racket on the court, which, again, according to the rules of tennis, is a court violation and her opponent, Naomi Osaka, received a free point as a result. And so, during the change-over, as Williams was sitting in her chair, she had what was basically an adult temper tantrum. She kept badgering Ramos, saying that he will never, ever, ever be on another court of hers as long as he lives; that he is a liar; that he owes her an apology, a public apology in front of everyone; that he is a thief, because he stole a point from her. That is when Ramos had enough; he slapped her with a game penalty, where she actually lost a game and she eventually would go on to lose the match and the championship.
Now, you would think that Serena would come to her senses and say, you know what, I really blew it, I got caught up in the heat of the moment and lost my cool, and I am sorry for that. Alas, no, no, no, no my dear friends, Serena Williams did not lose her cool, she was not engaged in a temperamental breakdown; she was not guilty of inappropriate and disgustingly infantile behavior. No! According to Serena, she was valiantly fighting for women’s equality. This is Serena at her press conference. “And I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. And for me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never took a game from a man because they said ‘thief.’ For me it blows my mind. But I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal [rights]……………. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.” And the room broke out into applause as she finished her response.
It seems that Serena has a number of supporters. People Magazine claimed that Serena Williams delivered an empowering message about her fight, her struggle for women’s equality at the post-championship press conference. Former tennis great Billy Jean King immediately rushed to her defense, tweeting out that it is blatantly obvious that men are treated differently than women in professional tennis. Women get hysterical while men are merely ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions for them. THANK SERENA WILLIAMS FOR CALLING OUT THIS DOUBLE STANDARD. Ellen DeGeneres came out and proclaimed that Serena Williams changed the world for the better! And Jonathan Van Ness demanded that the umpire should be fired! Serena is queen forever. The Women’s Tennis Association is backing her. The Washington Post even said: “Williams abused her racket, but Ramos did something far uglier: He abused his authority.” We could go on and on.
What makes this whole incident a tragedy in my opinion, and WHY it really does matter, is because of what sports are really supposed to be all about. Historically speaking, in terms of our Western Civilization, philosophes envision the athlete as one who embodied what they called kalokagathia, or the “beautiful and good.” A true sportsman exemplified a body and mind united in harmony, which for philosophers was the human ideal. The early church by and large picked up the significance of sport as a characteristic of the Christian life, particularly as it related to the formation of the classical virtue of engkratia, self-control or self-mastery. Paul uses this motif in 1 Cor 9 when he says, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control (engkrateuomai).” We see, too, in Galatians 5:7: “You were running well; who cut in on you that you do not continue to obey the truth?” The self-sacrifice and ‘no pain no gain’ like suffering, or as the Greeks would call it, the agon, is for Paul an appropriate training for the kind of self-control and bodily obedience needed for the advancement of the Christian gospel.
Dare I say it, but obviously, somewhere along the way all of this changed. In his influential study on modern sports, Allen Guttmann sees this change coming at least in part through the processes of modern secularization. While Christians took an active role in the sports world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sports nevertheless took on what Guttmann calls “a kind of secular faith.” This was due in no small part to the modernization of sports, which involved the standardization of rules, quantification of statistics, and the professionalization of players.
What this modernization of sports did is it replaced the classical notion of virtue with the secular ethic of political correctness. Now sports teams, as I am sure you all know, they now use their fame and fortune to promote feminism and multiculturalism, and to promote various ethnonationalisms such as the iconic Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the national anthem at the 1968 Olympic Games, and of course, Colin Kaepernick’s protesting of the national anthem in the National Football League. Sports in our modern contemporary era have become an occasion to promote all kinds of politically correct activist causes.
However, Serena William’s meltdown reveals something very telling about this new virtue of political correctness dominating our professional sports, and THIS is why I believe her meltdown matters for us. Serena Williams’ meltdown at the US Open matters because it is an explicit example of the various ways in which the kinds of virtue that are supposed to be the hallmarks of our sports competition have been replaced by a pseudo-virtue of victimization and political correctness here in the United States. Her demonstrably inappropriate and pathetically childish behavior was for many people effectively overturned and transformed into a bizarre kind of valor – almost a martyrdom – simply by invoking the notion that she was fighting for women’s rights. It is as if standing up for politically correct values is itself all the justification needed to vindicate and excuse what is otherwise nothing more than an extended and frankly embarrassing adult temper tantrum. Which in turn, I would argue, reveals just how vapid and devoid of virtue political correctness really is. If the so-called virtue of feminist-inspired equal rights entails the justification to act out in the most absurdly temperamental of manners, like Serena Williams did, if political correctness justifies that kind of absurdly temperamental behavior, then it is ironically an ideology that is completely devoid of any virtue worth emulating whatsoever. Ultimately, Serena Williams’ meltdown matters because it is a public demonstration of just how morally vapid political correctness really is. And THAT is the REAL double standard here.
And by the way, bravo to the new US Open tennis champion Naomi Osaka, who conducted herself with poise and grace and humility throughout the whole ugly ordeal. She is a model champion in the classical sense of one who competes with honor and respect for her opponent all the while her opponent was concerned ultimately only with herself. Naomi is a true champion.
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