The Serena Williams controversy at this year’s U.S. Open divided viewers. Many critics believe her confrontation with chair umpire Carlos Ramos was unbecoming of a professional tennis player, and many supporters believe that ignores deeper-seated gender and race issues that influence that view.
LeBron James, who knows first-hand the microscope that superstar athletes find themselves under, told The Hollywood Reporter that he views the Williams saga through the lens of his daughter, Zhuri, a 4-year-old African-American female who in his eyes could benefit from Serena’s trailblazing efforts.
“What we all have to understand is what she is fighting for is bigger than just that match,” said James. “She is fighting for equality — always having to win more, more, more, just to feel equal. Being an African-American woman playing in a predominantly white sport, she’s dealing with so much more. I have no idea what was going on in her head, but I feel that struggle.”
What was the U.S. Open controversy?
With Williams trailing Naomi Osaka 1-0 in the second set of her eventual 6-2, 6-4 loss in the U.S. Open final, Ramos issued the six-time U.S. Open champion a warning for allegedly receiving signals from her coach. Later in the set, Ramos cited her for breaking her racket in frustration, and when she called him a “thief” for penalizing her a point, he issued a third violation that cost her a game.
Afterwards, Williams defended her actions, making the case that chair umpires treat her male counterparts with far more resiliency with respect to emotional outbursts in the heat of competition.
“He never took a game from a man because he said ‘thief,'” she said. “For me, it blows my mind, but I’m going to continue to fight for women. … The fact I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and wants to express themselves and wants to be strong woman.”
In LeBron’s eyes, that next woman could be his daughter.
The support and criticism of Serena Williams
Tennis icon Billie Jean King also applauded Serena for calling out sexism in the sport, and the Women’s Tennis Association stood behind their brightest star. Online petitions have decried the United States Tennis Association’s “sexism” and “racism” after the governing body fined Williams.
Meanwhile, criticism has ranged from mild to incendiary. Martina Navratilova suggested “it wasn’t the right time” to cite sexism immediately following Osaka’s historical victory. While Novak Djokovic said he thought Ramos pushed Williams too far, he also didn’t believe his rulings were gender-motivated. And the clearest example of racism against Williams came from an Australian newspaper cartoonist.
There is no doubt that Williams is making us rethink the way race and gender influence our perception of sports. Support from fellow superstars like James will only help to advance that message. We should also applaud Osaka, whose success as the daughter of a Haitian man and Japanese woman is breaking barriers. It is encouraging that Zhuri James can draw inspiration from so many role models.
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