Female College Athletes Respond to the US Open Controversy

It was only a little over a hundred years ago that women were granted allowance to compete in the Olympics, the biggest sporting event in the world. In the first modern Olympic games in Athens in 1896, Pierre de Courboutin remarked that women’s inclusion in the games would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect." Female athletes have long been excluded from the very sports they excel at, and tennis has been one of the forefronts of the fight for gender equity in the athletic world through Billie Jean King’s Battle of the Sexes. Nowhere was the tense balancing act of a female athlete’s career more evident than the US Open women’s finale this past week.     

For those who missed it, the final match between 23-time champion Serena Williams and younger athlete Naomi Osaka ended in upset and chaos after referee Carlos Ramos called several penalties on Williams for supposed aggression and “coaching” by vague hand movements. These penalties are the main point of contention, as Williams called Ramos a “thief” for having penalized her, to which his response was to penalize her again. These penalties resulted in Williams being fined $17,000, and Naomi Osaka’s big moment of beating her longtime idol tarnished by a booing crowd.     

As a high school varsity athlete, for a large part of my adolescent life I was immersed in the world of “student athlete” culture. I was interested in how my peers in collegiate sports were responding to the excessive penalties on Ramos’ part, the pitting of Osaka and Williams against each other, and the media circus around whether there was bias at all. The frustration Osaka must have felt at not knowing whether her win was tainted by the power-play of a referee is something I can identify with in my own athletic career as a fencer. I reached out to some of my fellow female athletes to show just how pervasive the scope of gender politics in sports is.   

Serena Williams arguing with umpire Carlos Ramos. Source: https://www.standard.co.uk/sport/tennis/us-open-final-umpire-breaks-sile...

Kyra Hill, a freshman at the University of Chicago who played on the Horace Mann School tennis team, remarked that as a female tennis player the match hit particularly hard for her. “I go through just as many frustrations and tough moments as men when they play as well. I think Ramos went into the game not having negative intentions, however, his oversensitive response to Serena’s calling him a thief was an overreaction and a representation of the inequality that women face in the sport.” She added that, “I could easily be biased towards Serena because she’s been my idol since I was 10 years old, but I believe every now and then a player, whether they are male or female, should have the opportunity to let their frustration and anger go in a match, and I believe that Serena should not have been accused and thus penalized in the way she was.” Through Hill’s own experience with playing tennis, her opinion of the “coaching” Williams was penalized on was that “many coaches do similar things with their players, both men and women, and are usually paid little attention to.”     

Stephanie Carrero, a sophomore at Brown University who plays on the ultimate frisbee collegiate team, has struggled with bias against her as a female athlete. She decided to join the men’s frisbee team at her college due to feeling like others’ view of her performance was defined by her being a woman. “I am trying out for the men’s team in order to find my community not as a female athlete but as an athlete, period. As a female athlete and as a woman in general, I feel the constant pressure to prove that I have a right to be part of a community,” Carrero said. “I deserve the opportunity to demonstrate that I am a capable frisbee player. My gender has never been a hindrance to my growth but has only inspired me to work harder in a male-dominated field.” She went on saying, “Williams deserves to be known as arguably the best tennis player of our time without gender as an applied lens with which to scrutinize her performance. Her achievements feel like victories over the racism and sexism we have witnessed in her career, but they are also reminders that such discrimination is still pervasive. She was penalized for language men would not be criticized for.”     

Jane Frankel, a freshman at the University of Virginia who plays lacrosse, softball, and a host of other sports, spoke of personal experience with calls like the ones Williams experienced. “If I were to be called for a violation of some sort I would never show my physical frustration,” she said. “I would accept the call and move on with the game- no matter how absurd I believed the call was. However, with my male teammates, this was a totally different story. The call could be something as little as a false start, where we would just reset and keep playing, and the whole team of boys would freak out. I remember specifically one instance where a teammate was called for an illegal tackle and he preceded to scream at the top of his lungs and even charged at the coach as if he were going to punch him. The other boys on the team started laughing and encouraging him and even the coaches thought it was funny. I, on the other hand, was always too scared to even open my mouth as I was often struggling just to convince my teammates to pass me the ball in the first place.”  Frankel also addressed the issue of race: “I'd just like to make it a point that my experiences as a white female athlete are innately different from a female athlete of color. So, while I'll definitely share some of my stories I also wanted to point out that significant difference.”     

Naomi Osaka, Billie Jean King, and Serena Williams. Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-09-08/the-latest-murray-mat...

Winner Naomi Osaka is often left out of these discussions about sexism and racism, and it is important to acknowledge her success and the ways in which her role in the controversy has been twisted. In a racially charged cartoon Australian cartoonist Mark Knight drew Osaka as a white, blond player while Williams is painted in a grotesque, racist form. Yet this erases the fact that Osaka and Williams are both incredibly successful female athletes of color, and what should have been a moment for the media to come together and celebrate the achievements of two women against unfathomable odds has become a fraught, messy exposé of male chauvinism.     

Frankel said, “I watch hockey players try to throw hands at the referees or opponents almost every game with no New York Post article or trends on twitter in sight. The double standard for women in sports is an extremely significant issue and Serena Williams was just fed up with the system. She did what we should all do but are told we can't - stand up for ourselves.” Whatever the USTA decides about Ramos’ behavior, one thing we can be grateful for is that it publicly exposed the bias against female athletes.