Monday, July 11, 2016

But One Chapter in the Narrative of Sports: Thank you Serena Williams

Days after Serena Williams lost the French Open, a sportswriter raised an unfortunate question: Will Williams ever win another Grand Slam title? As many tennis fans know, Serena, who had already completed the Serena Slam (winning the Grand Slam in a non-calendar year) was going for history as she sought the 2015 US Open title. This victory would not only give her the distinction of becoming the fourth woman in the history of the sport to win a Grand Slam, it would be her 22nd—tying her with Steffi Graf for the most major wins in the modern game. She lost in the semis. 

In 2016, Serena went on to appear in the Finals of the Australian and the French Open, she lost in both. When I read that probing question, I put my magazine down with disgust. It's one that's not uncommon in sports. Golf fans are reading it on a regular basis this year as Jordan Spieth has yet to win a Major in 2016. And rather than answer the question, I thought instead about a larger one: What are the narratives that characterize professional sports today? I invite you to answer this question. Please share your response. For today, here is but one thought, among hundreds. looks like we have an answer to that question.
Default Language
Lying on the floor while stretching at the conclusion of a group exercise class at my gym, I looked up to read, actually read what the banners hanging from the ceiling had to say. They listed different championship titles that various teams within the club won and what year they did so. It was obvious to me that certain eras created a dynasty. But there was something on one banner that wasn't on all of the others; an interesting descriptor. It said "Women's Championship." I quickly realized that the default language in sports speaks of men and their accomplishments. You might make the argument that the club was originally for men only, so the history of the narrative stems from what was, rather than what it is today.

For example,  SportsCenter reported this morning that the US Women's Open champion in golf is Brittany Lang. When Dustin Johnson won the same title, sports media does note him as the "Men's Open championship," It could. My question is, Should it?
The same is true in professional basketball. The NBA is the National Basketball Association of male athletes. Though David Stern could have changed the name to the MNBA when the WNBA was created in 1996, he did not. Were a woman the commissioner, I'm not sure she would either. Norms in society are hard to change, but it doesn't mean they're not worth examining, considering, and questioning For example, I wonder: What are the implications of a language that suggests that athletes are male and when they are not—then and only then—do we let it be known otherwise?!

I'm okay with making distinctions. I have a favorite female athlete and I have a favorite male athlete. Evidence provided: here. You should say to me that Andy Murray was crowned the men's champion and Serena Williams is the women's champion of Wimbledon (although in this case, their names help me figure that one out. Not always true!). Though some would prefer to do away with these descriptors, they point to a truth. There are divisions by gender for a reason (which I'm not really interested in qualifying here. I'll leave that to some physiologist). In some arenas these divisions might not be necessary, but in others they are needed. For example, if Serena were to play on the men's tour, as much as I would want her to win, she wouldn't have the 22 titles that she does today. Men hit harder, their serve is faster and they play longer. Serena's serve is pretty close though! 
Michelle Wie comes to mind as a female athlete who attempted to play on the American men's tour, but did not make the cut. She is however the second woman to have made it on the Asian men's tour; Se Ri Pak of South Korea is the first. Unfortunately, Wie finished the year with disappointing performances on both the men's and the woman's tour. 

This too was not met without controversy. Female golf legend Annika Sorenstam criticized Wie for her decision to compete on the PGA tour. If you let the narrative of sports rest with those words, you would miss her larger claim. Wie wasn't even winning on the women's tour. Were she looking for the next level of competition, playing against men might make sense. Sorenstam was holding the claim at the LPGA has tremendous competition already. Why miss out on it? 

Without a doubt, Serena Williams has elevated the sport of tennis. And I say that with all due respect for the boys and girls, men and women, seniors, paraplegics and any fan of this great game. I love her for hundreds of reasons I have written about on this blog and as mentioned in this outstanding piece "The Singular Serena." She contributes much more than a singular chapter to the narrative of tennis and to that of all of sports. Today, I thank her for her contributions past and those to come....especially #23!

Photo Credits

B Lang
M Wie

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