Sports·Opinion

Film director's comments to Williams sisters reek of the misogynoir 2 tennis greats have always endured

It is formidable when a winner shows sportsmanship and extends kindness in that moment of glory. Conversely, it is despicable when a winner looks down on others from atop the podium, writes Shireen Ahmed.

Comes on heels of Naomi Osaka's emotional remembrance of their struggles

Venus Williams, left, and Serena Williams at the Critics Choice Awards on Sunday where they were subjected to a belittling comment from director Jane Campion. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In sports, there will always be a winner. I appreciate the delight and gratitude of champions who revel in their moment. It is important to celebrate a victor's journey and I absolutely love the heroics of an underdog and those who faced insurmountable barriers and challenges.

It is formidable when a winner shows sportsmanship and extends kindness in that moment of glory. Conversely, it is despicable when a winner looks down on others from atop the podium. 

Tennis legend Billie Jean King, who I consider the patron saint of women's sports, famously said: "I think self-awareness is probably the most important thing towards being a champion."

Though it is only March, this year already has brought a lot of self-awareness from athletes and from sports.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine thrust sports to the political forefront. We have seen athletes be so public and sincere in their grief. And still many continue to navigate through systems of racism and sexism — systems that are also damaging and violent. 

Just this past weekend, four-time Grand Slam tennis champion Naomi Osaka was heckled while competing at the prestigious BNP Paribas tournament in Indian Wells, Calif. Someone in the crowd yelled out, "Naomi, you suck." Osaka immediately went to the umpire, who dismissed the complaint and refused to eject the heckler. Osaka eventually lost the match.

WATCH | Naomi Osaka reacts to being heckled:

Naomi Osaka leaves Indian Wells in tears after heckling incident

5 months ago
Duration 7:10
Rattled by a derogatory shout from a spectator, Naomi Osaka went on to lose 6-0, 6-4 to Veronika Kudermetova in the second round of the Indian Wells Masters tournament. After the match, Osaka said she was emotional because she had recently seen a video of Serena and Venus Williams being heckled by fans at Indian Wells in 2001.

Afterward, she took the mic and addressed the crowd. She thanked them repeatedly through her tears (read: champion behaviour.) But she also specified that it wasn't the issue of being heckled — it was that she was being heckled at the same tournament that in 2001 Venus and Serena Williams were booed and racially abused.

At that tournament, their father and coach, Richard Williams, had been unjustly accused of orchestrating a result in the semifinal between the sisters, having Venus Williams withdraw because of an injury. Serena Williams went on to win the tournament but was still booed. Richard Williams was called the n-word. As a result, the Williams sisters boycotted the tournament for 14 years.

Osaka said that the memory of the Williams family getting booed played repeatedly in her head. For those arguing that she should withstand the pressure and heckling, there is more at play because of Osaka's own experience as a racialized woman in tennis. And why should Osaka have to manage the terrible behaviour of a wretched and unkind person? Why wasn't the woman who heckled her disciplined for disgraceful behaviour and contributing to systems of toxicity in tennis? 

The lack of resolution shown by the match umpire was the first breakdown in any advocacy for Osaka's well-being. For racialized athletes, heckling is not simply a form of disrespect, it is marinated in sexism and racism as well. For  Black and Brown women athletes, their identities are intrinsic to who they are, and criticism of them needs to be understood with this nuance.

During this same weekend, the wondrous Serena and Venus Williams were attending the Critics Choice Awards to present to those who worked on the film King Richard. It is a movie about their father, the journey of the family and the world of tennis. But amidst the celebration emerged another ugly event, again from a woman. 

Jane Campion accepts the award for best director for The Power of the Dog at the Critics Choice Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Jane Campion won Best Director for her film, The Power of the Dog. As a white woman from a very respected and established New Zealand family, this was an award she clearly cherished. The beaming and grinning Campion approached the mic and accepted the award and gave her love to the other nominees — all men.

Campion then looked at Venus and Serena Williams and said: "Venus and Serena, you are marvels … however, you don't play against the guys like I have to." 

What a splendid way to cut down two Black women and also infer that your struggles have been greater than theirs. I understand that Campion is a storied filmmaker and may exist in her own bubble, but is she ignorant to the horrible abuse and maltreatment that the Williams sisters have faced from tennis, sports media, fans and other tennis personalities? Their clothes, their hair, their bodies, and even their celebratory dances have been critiqued and belittled

On Monday, Campion released a statement in which she apologized to the sisters for what she called a "thoughtless comment." While her apology is important, it is necessary to examine the cause of the offence.

Despite being one of the most famous faces in tennis history, Serena Williams is still subjected to ignorance in the media. Less than two weeks ago The New York Times published a story about her new venture capital firm and misidentified her in a photo that was of her sister. 

But anything she might do that is considered offensive is put under scrutiny. While men get away with angry outbursts, any semblance of emotion from Serena or Venus Williams would label them an angry, Black woman. This trope is what law professor Trina Jones of Duke University explains is a reality for Black women.

"Black women are not supposed to push back and when they do, they're deemed to be domineering. Aggressive. Threatening. Loud," Professor Jones said.

Campion has certainly faced barriers in a male-dominated industry. But the suggestion that her own struggles are greater than the battles fought by two young Black girls from Compton in a historically all-white sport is not only factually incorrect but reeks of misogynoir. This commentary was unnecessary and ungenerous. 

Some may feel the need to defend Campion and argue that her issue wasn't about race, it was about gender. But Serena and Venus Williams cannot separate their race from their gender nor should they ever be expected to. The faster that all women understand this, the better off we will be. I would have loved to be happy for Campion and her win. But I remain unimpressed with her foolish acceptance speech and how she needlessly stepped on the Williams sisters. The applause in the background — equally belittling — cements my feelings. 

A tweet showing Venus Williams' face as Campion spoke is quite telling. Racialized people understand this look very well. She was momentarily frozen in courtesy and disbelief.

The ever-grinning Campion self-congratulated disrespectfully at the expense of two Black women — arguably two of the greatest athletes in history. This is not winning with dignity, in my view it is racist behaviour so superbly masked in ways only that rich, white women dare to do. 

Not only have Serena and Venus played against women, but they have also played against entire systems of racism, cruel media, unwelcoming tennis culture, and that includes men, too.

There is a way to rise to the top without stepping on Black women or anyone else for that matter. Campion chose not to take this path. She may have won, but she was in no way a champion. 

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