Who got the harsher penalty?

September 19, 2018

David Crawford Jones offers a viewpoint on Serena Williams' U.S. Open Finals match.

IN RECENT decades, the socialist intellectual tradition in the West has done a commendable job in explicating the connections between race, class and sex in capitalist societies.

Among many others, the work of Angela Davis, Ahmed Shawki and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has been particularly exemplary in forcing the organized left in the United States and Europe to move away from politics that all too often labeled discussions of racism and sexism as “distractions” from class struggle.

But with this shift has also come the danger of overcorrection, that our analyses of racism and sexism will ignore or minimize the class dimensions of struggle, as well as power dynamics that often defy the Manichaean assumptions of racist and patriarchal societies. This danger is most pronounced in the arena of celebrity politics, such as the recent scandal surrounding Serena Williams’ punishment in the U.S. Open Final.

In much of the commentary that has ensued following the controversial ending of her loss to Naomi Osaka, critics have pounced on the actions of umpire Carlos Ramos and labeled him both a racist and a sexist for issuing three penalties against Williams.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

This line of argument was recently put forward at SocialistWorker.org, where Alpana Mehta rhetorically asked, “Why does tennis hate its greatest player?” and described Ramos’ actions as punishing a Black woman for “daring to challenge a man.”

This article, and much of the commentary surrounding this incident, rather dangerously conflates three separate issues: first, Ramos’ treatment of Williams in the match; second, popular perceptions of Williams’ behavior; and third, sexism in tennis.

In this conflation, I fear we are missing an important opportunity to understand the events at this year’s U.S. Open through a lens that is attentive not only to the very real problem of racism and sexism in tennis and in society more generally, but also to the class dynamics that often defy easy generalizations.

FIRST, SPEAKING as a tennis fan and as a simple matter of fact, Ramos’ actions were entirely within the rules. That needs to be emphasized over and over again. Williams’ coach was, as he later admitted, trying to coach her, which is against the rules. Racket abuse, Williams’ second penalty, is commonly called against tennis players, male and female. And Williams did engage in verbal abuse of the umpire.

Rather oddly, much of the leftist critique of these events pays extraordinary attention to the lack of swear words in Williams’ speech, as if the only kind of verbal abuse that can occur is one in which an individual violates a kind of middle-class morality focused on particular terms rather than on the broader weight of speech. But in tennis and in life, verbal abuse can take many different forms.

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As Mehta notes, blowing off steam is a common practice in tennis, but she neglects to note that it is also frequently penalized, even when the resultant steam lacks any F-bombs or other derogatory speech. For instance, I once saw a white male tennis player penalized for silently making the “stop talking” gesture to an umpire.

On the other hand, as Mehta observes, John McEnroe was famously abusive of umpires, but while some people celebrate this aspect of his career (I do not), he was frequently penalized. Look at the 1990 Australian Open, where he was disqualified from a match for a progression of offenses similar to Williams.

It is also useful to think about what Williams’ actions and gestures would have led to in other sports. In baseball and basketball, she would have surely been ejected from the game. Open and extended defiance of an umpire’s authority is not looked kindly upon in any sport, regardless of your race or gender.

NOW ALL that said, the popular perceptions of this incident are certainly colored by race and gender.

The Australian cartoon Mehta referred to is clearly racist, and there is undoubtedly a double standard in how the bad behavior of male and female athletes is interpreted. It was also entirely wrong that a female tennis player was penalized for changing her shirt during a match. Tennis has a real sexism problem.

But the casual conflation of this history and these dynamics with Ramos’ actions is incredibly reckless and deeply unfair. Do the people accusing him of racism and sexism have any other evidence to back up this charge?

Ramos has been in the game a very long time. He has officiated many men’s matches and many women’s matches. He has officiated many Serena Williams matches. Are we to believe that he was suddenly, in the second set of a match Williams was already losing, determined to express his hatred of Black greatness through these penalties?

As Rafael Nadal, the great Spanish clay court champion, himself noted, Ramos has a reputation among players, both male and female, for being a stickler for the rules and for being quick to punish infractions. This often draws the ire of players, but throughout his career, he has been consistent in his actions.

But following the match, Ramos was booed out of the stadium and has ever since been subjected to character assassination by one of the most powerful athletes in the world, and her many fans, defenders and admirers. As Ramos also recently admitted, after the match, he was afraid to walk the streets of New York to avoid any “complicated situations.”

And it is here that I am brought back to the class dynamics at play. Serena Williams, arguably the greatest women’s tennis player in history, has a reported net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the backing of numerous corporate sponsors and the support of many celebrities. Ramos, by contrast, as an umpire makes an annual salary that is but a tiny fraction of Williams’ earnings.

Thus, while on the court, it may appear that Ramos, sitting in his high umpire chair, has unlimited authority over Williams, in reality, once the match ends, the power dynamics shift remarkably.

Ramos followed the rules in issuing the three penalties against Williams. He did his job. And yet he has been hung out to dry, recklessly accused of motives that are supported by no evidence whatsoever.

In response to Ramos’ treatment at the hands of Williams and a largely belligerent American press, tennis umpires, who overwhelmingly back Ramos, are considering unionizing, as the Guardian recently reported. They should, and in doing so, they should have the support of socialists everywhere.

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