I grew up in the South. I was raised in Tennessee, but have since lived in many other places all over the United States. I do feel fortunate in the fact that the city in which I spent my formative years had citizens of all races and opinions. Most of the area surrounding my city was rural and populated with white people. It was from one of these areas that my father was born. While not necessarily racist, he was a product of his time and setting. When I was born, I was part of Generation X, but in the South the pace of life and culture tends to slow change. My father was still adjusting, I think, to living around a varied group of people. I was watching sports that had already been integrated, but it might still have felt new to my father. In the late 70s to late 80s my favorite NFL team was the San Francisco 49ers (if you know me at all, you know I have been for several years now a Seattle Seahawks fan, but I come by it honestly: I used to live in Seattle). My father asked me one day, “Who are your favorite football players?” I answered, “Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.” To which my father responded, “Why do all your favorite players have to be black?” A couple of things dawned on me that day: 1) I did not realize that Joe Montana was indeed African-American (it appeared so from what my father had asked), and 2) I never thought about – and still do not think about – what color a player is. I did not care if Rice was glaucous with vermilion spots; he was an extremely gifted receiver who caught passes for my favorite team and was a class individual. What I have discovered as I have gotten older though, is that the problem with how many athletes are viewed is far more complex than just some cultural Southern discomfort.
Everyone has their prejudices and preferences. They are part of the wonder and fault of us being human. The problem comes when a large group of people share and revel in those prejudices and lose the ability to appreciate or respect something different. When one incorporates emotion into the equation, things can get worse. We generally do not like it when others we do not know well show strong emotion. We do not interpret emotion well. When the Boston Celtics won the NBA championship several seasons ago and Kevin Garnett was interviewed immediately following the game, he was overcome with feelings of joy and openly wept. The next morning the media reaction and fan reaction to seeing him was to view his actions in a mostly negative light: “You couldn’t understand what he was saying!” “Was he doing it because it had something to do with his contract?” Following Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman deflecting a ball away from a 49ers receiver to basically end the NFC Championship game in favor of the Seahawks in 2014, Sherman was interviewed on-field by reporter Erin Andrews. Sherman was still celebrating the victory and was animated during the interview. Many people viewed Sherman as too full of emotion. (Wasn’t he supposed to be?) At the 2009 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Serena Williams had an outburst towards a linesperson when Williams thought the linesperson had made an incorrect call. This happened again to Serena in 2011 when she was angry at an umpire at the same tournament. Williams was nearly demonized by media and casual sports fans for her emotions. There are many other examples of emotion-fueled moments in sports, of course, and many times those moments are met with repulsion.
When it comes to Williams specifically, it might be fair to ask why she is not a bigger piece of American marketing. Is it because of her sport? Tennis has a huge international following and is a healthy sport. Maybe that works against Williams though. She is an international star living in a very self-absorbed nation. Or is it that she dominates her sport like no other athlete – say what you will about Rhonda Rousey, but let’s talk about who is most dominant once Rousey has controlled her sport for more than a decade – but does not look like Chris Evert? Or Maria Sharapova. What if Serena were more petite, blonde and white? What if she did not speak her mind as she has earned the right to do? This is the ideal time to market Williams. She is on the verge of tying Steffi Graf for second all-time in career majors won and if she wins four more – something that seems feasible, if not even probable – she will have the most Grand Slam titles before she retires. She has just completed what is aptly named the “Serena Slam”, which is winning four straight majors, for the second time, and if she wins the U.S. Open in September she will have just completed a calendar Grand Slam, which is winning all four majors in a calendar year. She is American. What else as a country do we want in our athletic stars besides top-level play, championships and citizenship? But when she wins, there is an outspoken negative contingent (ironic, no?) that focuses on her body image (this might be the most confusing item brought up against Williams: she is muscular and strong; does this anti-Serena sentiment come from her not looking like your “average” female?) or her emotions or the more negative events that have happened in her career.
I do not pretend to assume racism might be the only factor in why Serena lacks the Q score of other athletes, and I should make that clear. Maybe she dominates her sport too much. Sometimes healthy competition drives a growing fan base for a sport. But I will tell you, I have been around tennis culture all my life. Tennis culture does not have any issues with Serena. There may be some players who dislike her, but every player has someone who does not like them. The problem lies more with the American sports fan. And to the American sports fan I will ask, would you like Serena more if she were male? If she were blonde? If she were more reserved? And finally I will echo my father’s question to me to you – only with a change, why do all your favorite players in individual sports have to be white?