US Open & sexism

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author: alena vidyadhar | contributor


Edwin Martinez / Wikimedia Common

A final to remember, but for what reasons?

While the US Open Final should be remembered as a historic match between two incredible athletes,  it has instead been tainted with what competitor Serena Williams and a number of critics have called sexist officiating. Under the rules of tennis, chair umpire Ramos did not do anything wrong when he issued three code violations to Serena: for receiving coaching, for breaking her racket and for verbal abuse when she called him a “thief.” Although technically these violations may have been deserved under the rules, they also serve to highlight the double standards women are held to in sport, even at such an elite level.  

For example, James Blake, a top five male tennis player, admitted that he has called officials far worse than the word thief without a penalty; others have broken far more rackets before receiving a code violation; and the lack of so-called soft warnings before at least the first and third violations says plenty by itself. The bottom line is that male athletes are given more leeway than females, and in this case, the consequence was that we were all robbed of seeing Naomi beat her idol through-and-through on fair terms.  

Other than when and with whom rules and technicalities are actually enforced, another shining double standard emerges in the reception of Serena’s outburst. Bad behaviour is bad behaviour, but as most athletes know, when we step out onto that field or on those courts or on that mat, it can be difficult to control our own frustration. The difference is that when men are emotional, it’s seen as just a release of passionate energy, while when women are emotional, we’re called hysterical, and completely out of control. No matter which way you spin it, we’re either bad athletes or not seen as being as competitive, passionate, or aggressive as our male counterparts.  

Sexism in sport is not a new phenomenon, though, especially when looking at traditionally male-dominated sports. It was seen at a high level wrestling championship where after the actual freestyle wrestling was complete, a crown was given to “the most beautiful wrestler” – except it was only for female wrestlers. The practice was discontinued after an elite wrestler and winner of the crown refused it and pointed out that this was a wrestling tournament and not a beauty pageant. Sexism is seen in the skeptical look on people’s faces when a woman says she is a wrestler and an Olympic weightlifter, where they go so far as to touch her bicep and say “really?” It’s seen in the questioning of a female athlete’s sexuality based solely on the fact that she participates in what are seen as male sports like football, wrestling, or weightlifting. What happened at the US Open Final should incite us to think critically about the different levels of sexism women endure in the realms of sport, and while Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka can’t change the dramatic events of their match, we can all remember that the arc of morality has always moved toward fairness and perhaps hope for a world where men and women are treated with just equality, both in and out of sport.  

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