The XX Factor

The Difference Between Serena Williams and Skip Gates

I had a whole series of reactions, in real time, to Serena Williams’ outburst in the U.S. Open semifinals on Saturday night. First, I got annoyed at the footfault call that led to her blow-up because John McEnroe, in the announcement booth, said that the lineswoman was over-officiating. Then I felt cheated, as a fan, because the penalty against Williams cost her match point, which meant that the match ended without a final cathartic moment (and just as Williams was picking up her game). But I completely changed my mind as they replayed the tape of Williams, and then when I watched her completely lame press conference, in which, five minutes later, she said she’d already “moved on.” One of the game’s top players broke the rules in utter prima donna fashion and got punished for it, and amen to that. It’s not the first time Serena has acted out like this. McEnroe’s defense is neither surprising, given his bad boy past, nor, in the end, convincing. I agree with him that the refs shouldn’t call foot faults on big points. Sliding a toe onto the line when you serve doesn’t really give you an advantage. But that doesn’t excuse a player who curses and threatens in response.

All of this is making me think again about the summer’s big confrontation between a (wealthy black) star and a (not wealthy, not black) official - Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ run-in with Cambridge cop James Crowley. The crucial difference is that this time, we have the videotape. We know what Serena and the lineswoman each did, and that means there’s no opening for a see-it-your-own-way showdown about race and class. I’m not suggesting that if we had the tape of Gates and Crowley, we’d see Gates acting like Serena did. My point is that because we know the facts this time, we’re not getting stuck in a feedback loop of assumptions based on who we’re more prone to sympathize with. No one is talking about race and class at all. We can judge the line call and Serena’s reaction, and then, yes, we can move on.