Although I am on in years there was a time in my life when I was an active and competitive athlete, in particular in the sport of soccer. For most of my soccer experience in both High School and in College, I played as a striker or an attacking midfielder. Now, I was competitive and at times I gave an elbow or came in late on a tackle – unfortunately, that is all part of the game. There were, however, plenty of times when I was called for a foul when I was completely innocent but the referee judged my intent as not so innocent and awarded me a yellow card.
One time I remember in particular what while playing in a tournament in Tenessee. Our High School team was doing well, keeping pace with our competition, but on this day a great fog descended and by the time the kickoff whistle blew you could not see the other goal from the center spot on the pitch. We were winning the game 2-1 and a ball was kicked ahead in the air toward our opponent’s goal (which my midfield teammate could not see). By the time I arrived at the ball so had the opposing team’s goalkeeper. It was a 50-50 challenge which I won by kicking the ball toward the goal, but because of the challenge, I landed awkwardly. The referee came out of the fog and saw both me and the goalkeeper sprawled out in the 18-yard box, blew his whistle and then with an angry look on his face, raised a Yellow Card in my direction.
Now, I was still a little groggy coming out of the challenge, and when I saw the Yellow Card I must admit I was rather miffed. There was no foul. A clumsy challenge by both players competing for a ball – Yes, but not a foul. Should the referee have blown the whistle? Maybe. Probably. I have spent my time refereeing and I think that I may have blown my whistle to give the benefit of the doubt to the goalkeeper – which is normal procedure. Still, the angry expression of the referee communicated to me his belief of my deliberate intent to cause a foul, but I know in my heart that it wasn’t the case.
So, I know what it is like to be accused of something in the context of a sport where you know you didn’t do what you are accused of and your pride is hurt because it challenges your integrity. But in sports, referees are there to make judgments based on their understanding of the facts before them. That is their job. That is what they are there to do. They rule and they typically get it right, but not always. So, it is often a challenge to get on with the game and forget about it.
Unfortunately, this past Saturday, September 9, 2018, at the US Open Tennis Championships, Serena Williams couldn’t just get on with it. She was adjudged by the court referee to have been coached by her coach (which he subsequently admitted to, but she denied) which the referee rightly applied the rule of law by deducting a point. Then she broke her tennis racquet which is another violation resulting in the loss of another point. Then she challenged the referee personally and called him a thief while stating over and over again that she doesn’t cheat – which clearly she had since her coach admitted to it. That resulted in her losing a game. Finally, she attacked the referee calling her treatment an attack on women in sports. Others, of course, were quick to also turn Serena’s treatment into a racial thing, which it clearly was not.
So, Serena Williams is a victim of a white referee who is a racist and hates women. Or, is she just another privileged athlete who was caught out committing a violation from a referee who is known to be tough on keeping the rule of law? Is she another celebrity who is not willing to face up to reality and to take responsibility for her actions. There was coaching. She is guilty. She is responsible.
After the match, when Serena’s coach admitted to the coaching, he made light of it saying, “Everybody does it – you all know it.” Well, it may be something that everyone does, like driving 10-15 mph over the speed limit or taking extra sugar packets from McDonalds, but the fact that everyone does it doesn’t mean that it is not right to hold someone accountable for it. The rules of tennis are there for a reason. If those involved in the sport think that it is an unnecessary rule then that rule should be changed via proper procedure, not bullying tactics from players or coaches. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is what also takes place in our society. Since everybody does it we should just look away and not hold people accountable for their actions, especially when the rule of law says otherwise.
Now, certainly, there are all sorts of issues surrounding Serena’s meltdown. Some of those have to do with women’s sports. But her actions should not be championed. In my opinion, she brought shame upon the sport and disgraced herself. In the heat of the moment – and all passionate athletes have been there – She defended her actions, took the moral high ground, and demanded that the referee apologize for calling her integrity into question. The person who should be apologizing is Serena. She is a great athlete to be sure. She deserves respect for what she has done as a tennis player, but she needs to take responsibility for her own actions and apologize to the referee and all who watched her antics. What are sports coming to when the professional athlete feels the freedom to mistreat the referee? Maybe it is an issue of privilege or the abuse of power by those who earn far more money than the referee’s themselves.
In particular, she should apologize to Naomi Osaka, her opponent on the day, who beat her soundly 6-4, 6-2, and who is the first Japanese player to ever win a grand slam title. Unfortunately, we are not hearing about Naomi Osaka, but only about Serena Williams.
By the way. When the referee blew his whistle giving me a yellow card I eventually laughed and raided my arm from which my wrist dangled. In the collision with the goalkeeper and my subsequent fall, I had broken my wrist.
After going to the hospital, setting the bone in place and being put on morphine, I returned to the camp where the soccer tournament was being played and I was given an “All-Tourney” team trophy – on which someone had added tape to form a cast. I am still proud of it to this day!