Serena Williams and the punishment of victims

It is not every day that an elite sports person returns to an annual event after a 14 year absence. So unsurprisingly the return of World Number 1 Serena Williams to Indian Wells for the first time since 2001 is a big story.

The background is this. At the 2001 event Serena’s sister Venus defeated Elena Dementieva of Russia to set up a Semi-Final with Serena. After the match Dementieva  was asked who she thought would win the match between the sisters. She said “I think Richard (the sisters’ father) will decide who’s going to win tomorrow”.  I’ve mentioned Dementieva’s remark as I think it had a big part in what happened next.

As it turned out the semi-final never took place as Venus pulled out with a knee injury. The trouble was that the tournament only announced it to the crowd minutes before the match was due to start – although the family said they had told officials hours before. The crowd understandably did not like this and rumours suggested they did not want to play each other. It has to be remembered that at the time the press were claiming the sisters’ matches were fixed (which is where Dementieva’s remark comes into the story).

But there was no excuse for what happened next. When Serena came out for the Final against Kim Clijsters she and her father were greeted by a chorus of boos. In fact during the match fans cheered Serena’s errors. her father responded by raising a clenched fist – the black power symbol – and saying it was “the worst act of prejudice I’ve seen since they killed Marin Luther King”. That might have been taking it too far but the behaviour was racist. How often does an American get booed when playing a foreigner? To show how it affected Serena a chapter in her autobiography was called “the Fiery Darts of Indian Wells” and in it she wrote:

The ugliness was raining down on me hard. I didn’t know what to do. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before…But I looked up and all I could see was a sea of rich people – mostly older, mostly white – standing and booing lustily like some kind of genteel lynch mob.

Neither Serena or Venus have played Indian Wells since until Serena’s come back this year (Venus is still boycotting the  event ).

But the point I want to make is that no one got punished for this shameful episode. The spectators were not nor was the tournament or Dementieva for her remarks which sparked the whole thing off. The only people that were punished were the victims. In 2009 Indian Wells became a Premier Mandatory event on the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tour. That means a player has to take part. If she does not it still counts towards her ranking and she gets zero points. So in effect the Williams’ sisters boycott has hindered their ranking. The WTA should be ashamed of themselves for punishing the victims of racism. Whoever came up with the idea of making Indian Wells a Premier Mandatory event should be sacked if they are still in the WTA’s employ. I suspect whoever that person is it is highly likely it is a male and I would be 99 per cent certain the person was white.

Sadly this is not the only example of the punishment of victims in sport. In Russia the chairman of their FAs disciplinary committee Arthur Grigoyants has banned black players who react to racist abuse by gesturing to the racists. He has even said that if they do that they are “so-called, in inverted commas, victims”. Which only proves that Russia is a so called, in inverted commas, civilised country that shouldn’t be hosting an egg and spoon race never mind the 2018 football World Cup.

Not that we in the UK can gloat. When footballer Anton Ferdinand was a victim of racist abuse by John Terry a lot of people attacked him for refusing to shake Terry’s hand before the next game his team played against Terry’s team. Why should he if he didn’t want to? Surely each victim should be able to respond in the way they want and the rules of arrogant sport be forced to accommodate the victim’s wishes. I suspect most people who wanted him to shake Terry’s hand were white.

The point is that we white men have no right to comment on the actions of victims of racism and sexism because we have no experience of racism and sexism ourselves. We do not know what it is like to be called “nigger” and have bananas thrown at us. We do not know what it is like to be shouted at whistled at or groped in the streets like a lot of women do. So how are we qualified to comment on the reaction of the victims themselves? We aren’t. Some can forgive. Some can forget. Some can forgive but not forget. And some can do neither. It is their right.

So it is not our business to comment on Serena’s decision to return to Indian Wells. We must respect both her decision to return to the event and the fact she has chosen to boycott in the past. We must also respect Venus’ decision to continue her boycott. And we MUST not punish the vicitms of discrimination for their reaction. Only the victims of discrimination know what it feels like. Only the victims of discrimination know what its like to suffer. We must respect their wishes.

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