What can we learn from the women’s final of the US Open?
As usual, social media commentary seems to be incapable of seeing this conflict through anything but polarized, predetermined, or politicized lenses.
Your choices: Umpire Carlos Ramos was just doing his job according to the rule book and Serena’s awful behavior merited the penalties (and she owes him an apology) OR Carlos Ramos is a sexist/racist/Williams-sister-hating egoist and Serena was justly responding to mistreatment on behalf of both herself and longsuffering women worldwide (and he owes her an apology).
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Apart from the possible justifiable truths of each argument, they both owe each other an apology. If nothing else, if you can successfully separate out emotional intensity and predetermined bias when analyzing what happened, you're left with another excellent study in the nature of being human.
A few thoughts...
Anyone who understands competition knows that Ramos could have ignored whatever gesture he caught Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou offering (as he seems to have been doing with Naomi Osaka’s coach). Later, he could have overlooked and absorbed Serena’s insult toward him without charging her a full game.
Nobody wants to see a major championship decided by penalties, and Ramos should have done all within his power to avoid becoming part of the narrative. Arguably, the context called for restraint and discernment on his part as much as it did on William’s. I don’t need to hear the rule book or the argument that “he was just doing his job.” Chair umpires do their jobs selectively and with some measure of subjectivity all the time.
Even if he was justified by the letter of the law, his choices in the context of this particular match are worthy of judgment. Once the perceived offenses started, he took what was happening just as personally as she did, and regardless of his reasoning, became too involved in the match, as he seems to have done before with both men and women.
Again, if you’re acquainted with competition, you also know something of what Williams was experiencing early in that final. She’s cruising through the previous rounds as an #18 seed and has momentum going into the final, but now in the first set she’s thrashed by a woman half her age. Stress levels are understandably rising.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. All the commercials, all the interviews, all the articles, all the build up surrounding her post-pregnancy return to the game she’s dominated. She’s supposed to win, not get beat by a Japanese/Haitian player who had “Serena” posters on her wall growing up.
Making matters worse, she is then — in her mind — falsely accused of getting help from her coach, help that obviously wasn’t helping even if she actually did receive it. Frustration mounts after another lost game, and she erupts by destroying her racket against the court that is now betraying her. From that point forward, she accosts Ramos verbally for the rest of the match.
I was pulling for Williams and disappointed she got off to such a bad start against Osaka, still believing she would turn it around even after the “coaching” violation. Further, I thought violations #1 and #3 were punk moves on the part of Ramos, who, like all umpires is selective about what he “sees” and chooses to penalize. He should have done everything he could to stay out of affecting the outcome through penalties.
Maybe he tried. It didn’t seem like it. He should feel responsible for inciting much of what happened.
I also appreciate that across Williams' 23-year professional career she IS representing and fighting for women’s rights and equality. She IS carrying the burden of constantly being stigmatized by her Compton background and racialized by the color of her skin, absorbing animosity further ignited by her dominance of the game. Both she and her sister have been subjected to overt and covert racist attacks their entire careers and have been gracious more often than not, enduring far more than other players of similar stature. She brings her history and her relationship to the sport along with her into every match she plays, and while she's been far from perfect, throughout her career she's been trying to grow under a different set of pressures than most players have to experience.
A study in humanity
But, in this case, the way it spiraled downward wasn't Carlos Ramos’ or her coaches’ or the racket’s fault — it was Serena’s.
Even if the accusation of receiving coaching help was false, it didn’t result in a point against her until she mangled her racket while walking to her seat. The game penalty didn’t get assessed until she insisted on passionately and relentlessly addressing Ramos.
And so she scrambled to justify. She relentlessly argued her case. She hid behind her claim of self-righteousness and whatever cause she could lay claim to that would shield her from her own guilt.
Been there. Done that.
Join the crowd, Serena. We’re all there with you. The dark side looms in all our hearts. What ultimately separates any of us from one another isn’t our capacity for excellence while performing, but rather our willingness to own our brokenness with a humble and contrite heart when we come face-to-face with it. Never easy, especially when we feel we’ve been wronged.
Everyone shares in the same fallenness, but not everyone is equally willing to see it in themselves or respond with repentance when they do.
Even after the match, when asked if she would have done anything differently, she stuck to her angle of sexism and unfair treatment, positing herself as a martyr for the cause whose courage might open the door for another woman player to receive better treatment.
But even if all true, that’s hogwash. This particular context wasn’t about Ramos — who may or may not be a horrible umpire and who may have failed in his stringent application of the rules in this championship moment — nor about feminism or the ongoing unequal treatment of women.
It was about Williams’ humanity in the midst of a stressful, highly charged, emotional situation.
If we’re going to herald her for strength and courage and motherhood and “Momma said knock you out” commercials and for arguably being the GOAT, can we also honestly deal with her broken humanity in this moment and not diminish her by trying to excuse it? Can we stop judging her AND holding her up as a martyr and instead simply dignify her by seeing that she responded poorly in a very difficult situation?
Proverbs 25:28 says, “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” In her tennis playing, she’s been the standard for decades, but when her walls come down through lack of self control she is as vulnerable and treacherous as any one of us might be given similar circumstances.
Only the gospel can cleanse us from those moments where we unleash the hell of our hearts for all the world to see because only Jesus went to hell on our behalf to reclaim those same darkened, Genesis 3-stained hearts.
If you find yourself on the side of judging Serena Williams, don’t do it too harshly. She just did what any of us might do (and have done) apart from spiritual intervention — and perhaps even in spite of it.
Conversely, don’t make the mistake of siding with her so strongly that you miss what we should learn from her reaction.
When confronted with a situation where our pride and sense of justice are being attacked, how often do we resort to claiming self-righteousness, blaming, self-justifying, and failing to see our contribution — all to our own demise?
Our own claim of self-righteousness
“It was not coaching. I do not cheat to win. I would rather lose. I just want you to know that,” she said to Ramos between games.
That sounds great and I absolutely believe her in general — except that within moments of her saying it her coach was on national TV after the match saying that he sends messages during matches all the time and thus they “cheat” just like everyone else. There’s really only a handful of possible ways to cheat in professional tennis, and getting coaching during the match is one of them, however negative we may feel about the rule.
(Perhaps she and others don’t really think sending signals should be considered cheating, but that’s a different discussion. For now, it is, and someone in the camp was doing it.)
How many times have I tried to insist on my own innocence, when all the while my guilt goes before me? I DIDN’T DO THAT! Except I did — or did something close — and all the yelling and insistence that I didn’t only makes me more guilty. Maybe in this instance you didn’t see the signal you were penalized for, but to insist you never cheat while your conspirator is confessing the exact opposite undermines any claims of moral righteousness as a defense.
Our need to redirect blame
To immediately suggest Ramos was acting out of a prejudicial sexism was unnecessary.
Perhaps he was. Perhaps he’s racist, too. Maybe he hates the Williams sisters. Maybe he’s a jerk to his wife or lover at home. Maybe he’s sick of all the Serena commercials holding her up as a hero while he judges her on-court behavior as deserving of something different. Maybe he's got something against her coach, or maybe he’s just a horrible person. Who knows?
It doesn’t matter. The unraveling that happened was not a function of Ramos’ character or lack thereof. She can’t blame it on anyone else and neither should we.
(“And the man said, ‘It was the woman whom You gave to me who gave me the fruit and I ate.” Eve started the dominoes falling but Adam was held responsible for his own choice. No blame game allowed.)
Even if Ramos should have overlooked the coaching call, Williams could just as easily have overlooked the accusation once it happened. How many times has something happened to me that I considered unjust, only to then respond in a fashion more egregious than the original offense?
Even if I’m carrying the weight of the world, I still have a responsibility to do the right thing, to leave justice in the hands of God and move on. I can’t blame someone else for my choice to respond poorly. But if I do, it’s on me.
Our scrambling for self-justification
I don’t cheat.
He’s a sexist.
Men do it all the time and nothing happens to them.
He’s a thief and a liar.
I’m suffering for the cause.
I’m well acquainted with the indignation (and squirming) represented by these words from moments when I’ve used similar reasoning in my own life. Are you? When things are falling apart, when your pride is trampled, when you feel unjustly accused or attacked and then respond poorly, when you feel ashamed or embarrassed but aren’t willing to embrace it yet, isn’t it easier to put energy toward self-justification instead of owning your part?
We can try using variations of the “I May Have Broken My Racket, But You Started It and You’re a Worse Person and Deserved Everything I Sent Your Way” defense in comparable settings within our own lives, but know that however much it may be supported by those on social media, it never works when standing before the Universal Judge.
Our unwillingness to see our contribution—even afterward
After the event, Williams was asked if she would do anything differently, a perfect opportunity to own her contribution to the melee. Instead, she reiterated that Ramos was a thief, that his behavior was sexist, and that she was basically persecuted for showing emotion on the court and a martyr for the cause of feminism.
Responses that reflect an unwillingness to assess her own contribution to the awkward environment she significantly helped create. I understand sticking to my story, too, especially when plenty of others are agreeing with me and when I believe I’m right about what happened.
It happens in marriage. It happens between siblings/friends. It happens in church. It happens between co-workers.
But there’s a better way forward.
How about, “I disagree with everything Carlos Ramos did in that match, but I lost my composure when he said I cheated and then chose to bust my racket and insult him in retaliation. I wish I could take those reactions back, even if I think he deserved them. That’s not the response I would want from my own daughter facing a similar situation in the future and in spite of how I carried myself at the trophy presentation, I wish I’d modeled something different for all of your daughters watching during the match. I just lost it and I’m sorry for that — even if Ramos was horrible.”
Is that a lot to ask? Maybe. But Serena Williams always seems to embrace new challenges and push herself to reach new standards. So let’s not be afraid to challenge her — or ourselves — to this kind of greatness when the opportunity presents itself again.