And tennis is supposedly one of the most ethical sports.
This weekend’s U.S. Open women’s final opened up so many cans of ethics worms that they should be squiggling for weeks.
Here is the New York Times report in part:
Anger, boos, tears and an accusation of sexism overshadowed a remarkable victory by Naomi Osaka, a rising star who became the first tennis player born in Japan to win a Grand Slam championship.
Osaka soundly defeated her childhood idol, Serena Williams, 6-2, 6-4, in the women’s final of the United States Open on Saturday, blocking Williams from winning a record-tying 24th major singles title. But the match will long be remembered for a series of confrontations between Williams and Carlos Ramos, the match’s chair umpire, who issued three penalties against Williams in the second set, after Osaka had established her dominance.
The first was a warning after Ramos felt Williams was receiving instructions from her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, from the stands, which is against the rules. Williams was offended by the implication that she was cheating, and she demanded an apology. Later, after losing a game, she smashed her racket on the court, incurring a second penalty and the loss of a point. Finally, after she called Ramos a “thief” for taking the point from her, Ramos cited Williams a third time, resulting in the loss of a game. Williams’s anger intensified, and she pleaded for help from the tournament referee, Brian Earley, and the Grand Slam supervisor, Donna Kelso….
But what should have been a moment of uninhibited joy for Osaka turned into tears of sadness. The postmatch celebration was tarnished by the angry booing from fans upset over what they perceived as Ramos’s unfair treatment of Williams, and amid the cacophony, amplified by the closed roof because of rain, Osaka pulled her visor down over her face and cried….
In the second game, Ramos spotted Mouratoglou urging Williams to move up, and Mouratoglou conceded that he was, in fact, coaching. But he argued that it is done by every coach in every match and that the warning was the cause of what followed. He said Ramos should have quietly told Williams to inform him to cut it out. “That’s what umpires do all year,” the coach said, “and it would have ended there, and we would have avoided a drama that was totally avoidable.”
Williams approached the chair to tell Ramos that it was a “thumbs-up” gesture and that she would never accept coaching on court, which is against the rules of Grand Slam events. “I don’t cheat to win,” she said in a stern tone. “I’d rather lose.”
During the next changeover, tensions seemed to simmer down during a civil exchange when Williams explained to Ramos that she understood he might have interpreted some coaching, but that none actually existed.
Williams went back on court, held her serve in that game, and then broke Osaka’s serve to take a 3-1 lead in the second set. If she could have consolidated that break, it might have turned the flow of the match. But Osaka broke right back, and after the game ended, Williams destroyed her racket by throwing it to the court in anger. That resulted in a racket abuse penalty, a second code violation, for which the penalty is a point. Osaka would start the next game ahead by 15-0. When Williams realized that, she argued more and demanded that Ramos apologize to her and make an announcement to the crowd that she was not receiving any coaching. Ramos, known for his no-nonsense approach, did not relent.
“You owe me an apology,” Williams said. “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her and I have never cheated.”
When the next changeover came, with Osaka leading, 4-3, Williams, still visibly distraught over what she perceived as unfair treatment, told Ramos that he had stolen a point from her and called him “a thief.” For that, Ramos gave Williams a third code violation, which meant she lost a game. Without swinging her racket, Osaka was now ahead, 5-3, and one game from the championship. Williams did not appear to realize that Osaka had been given the game until she reached the baseline again. Now fuming, she returned to the chair and demanded to speak to Earley and Kelso. Fighting back tears as the crowd yelled, hooted and booed, Williams pleaded her case. She said the treatment was unfair and argued that male players routinely behave in the same manner without facing penalties.
“There are men out here that do a lot worse, but because I’m a woman, because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me? That is not right,” Williams told one official. Later, at a post match news conference, she accused Ramos of sexism for issuing a code violation for her “thief” accusation….
As the players stood next to each other, fans booed and Williams, seeing how upset Osaka was, moved over and put her arm around the new champion and then pleaded with the fans not to boo.
Osaka, in her speech, apologized to the fans, acknowledging that most of the fans were rooting for Williams in her quest to set a career record.
Now this, from the Sporting News:
Patrick Mouratoglou admitted to coaching Serena Williams during the U.S. Open final, but believes she never received his message….Mouratoglou said he had attempted to help Williams, but added coaching was common in almost every match.”I’m honest, I was coaching. I don’t think she looked at me so that’s why she didn’t even think I was,” he told ESPN.
“But I was, like 100 percent of the coaches in 100 percent of the matches so we have to stop this hypocritical thing. Sascha (Bajin, Osaka’s coach) was coaching every point, too. “It’s strange that this chair umpire (Carlos Ramos) was the chair umpire of most of the finals of Rafa (Nadal) and (his uncle) Toni’s coaching every single point and he never gave a warning so I don’t really get it.”
If you read Ethics Alarms with any regularity at all, you should be able to predict some of the commentary here, if not all of it.
I. The primary Ethics Dunce and the originator of the wreck was Serena Williams.
Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time, bar none. She is admirable in many ways, and has pretty much saved American’s women’s tennis in the post-Chris Evert era from being overwhelmed by boring international stars and uninteresting personalities. She is also a raging narcissist, a bully, and often unsportsmanlike. I don’t mark her down too much for narcissism. Narcissism is as much an occupational hazard for athletes as it is for actors, models, bodybuilders, artists and politicians. It is the rule rather than the exception for all of these professional pursuits, and the greater the achievements, the more pronounced the narcissism in most cases….not all, but most.
Williams is a prime example of why caution should be used before one selects heroes and role models, and this episode shows her capacity as an ethics corrupter. She knew that the New York crowd was overwhelmingly favoring her over her underdog, Japanese-American opponent. She knew she was losing fairly and squarely. She knew that protesting to the umpire repeatedly would inflame the crowd, and she knew that doing so was considered bad form in her sport. She also knew, or expected, that as her sport’s biggest star and personality she could count on “The King’s Pass” to some extent, meaning that instead of being held to a high standard as a star and role model, she would be held to a lower one.
Her protests to the umpire were in fact a series of rationalizations, including “Everybody does it” (#1), “It’s not the worst thing” (#22), “They’re Just as Bad” (#2), and “No harm no foul” (#8). Williams played the victim, knowing that doing so would undermine her opponent’s victory, which was looking likely. Serena didn’t care. Hers was an unethical—and revealing—performance in multiple ways.
II. Williams was cheating as well as lying about the coaching from the stands…
…and not just lying, either, but also grandstanding at an obnoxious level. In Serena’s case, you have to pick a defense; arguing in the alternative doesn’t work. Williams was claiming “How dare you suggest that I was cheating!” while her coach was arguing, “Everybody does it!”
At least Mouratoglou confirmed that he was, in fact, giving hand signals despite Serena’s feigned indignation, which really translated as, “How dare you not let me, the Great Serena Williams, cheat to achieve my inspiring comeback?” After the match, and her coach had spilled the beans, Williams’ defense morphed into “But I wasn’t watching him, so it doesn’t matter.” Yes, it does. The act of cheating is completed when a third party affiliated with the player on the court provides advice to that player. The officials don’t have to prove that the advice was taken, or that it was effective.
If Serena’s coach was giving hand signals this time, then he’ s done it before. If he’s done it before, then Williams knows he coaches during matches. If she knew that before the U.S. Open, then she ratified the cheating unless she instructed him, “No hand signals.”
Williams was essentially using yet another rationalization, #61. A. Barry Bonds’ Pass: “He didn’t need to cheat,” changing the “he” to “she.” The evidence is, however, that her coach was signalling Williams to move to the net, and she did start moving to the net, and did start winning points by doing so.
I’m sure it was just a coincidence.
III. All three penalties were justified.
Once her cheating lie was exposed by her own coach, then her defenses against her other two penalties from the umpire, Ramos, were imaginary. Throwing a racket in anger is usually an infraction: it was even when I was playing competitive tennis. Calling an umpire a “thief” should be a penalty, and was. That’s not just unsportsmanlike; it is impugning the integrity of the the official, the match, and the tournament. A baseball player who called an umpire a thief would be thrown out of the game. If he said it after a game, he’d be suspended and fined. A lawyer who called a judge a thief would be held in contempt, and probably disciplined by the bar.
VI. Playing the gender card was despicable.
When one is caught in misconduct, play the victim. That’s what Williams was modeling for her fans and admirers. Note that she was not saying that blameless conduct was being punished by the official that male players routinely engage in with impunity. She was saying that she should be allowed to engage in misconduct, because according to her, men did it too. The problem is that even if she’s correct in her complaint—and with Ramos, she was not correct—what she is arguing is that their unpunished conduct justifies hers. Wrong. If true, the remedy would be to make sure that male players are penalized too, not to allow her to violate the rules.
Today the sports media is full of opinion pieces supporting Williams because she called attention to the gender inequality in pro tennis. There are issues in that area, though not the main one—women get less money to play tennis because they aren’t as good at it, therefore not as entertaining to watch. If they want equal prize money, the solution is simple: open up the men’s tournaments to the women, and see how they do. They know how they’d do—badly.
Williams decided to exploit the earlier controversy in the tournament over a female player’s penalization for changing her shirt on the court to bully this umpire, who wasn’t buying it. Writes the Times’ Janet Macur, “You also have to wonder if Williams would have gone after Ramos so relentlessly — and with such conviction to stand up for women’s rights — if she were winning.” No, you don’t have to wonder. Hers was a cynical, self-aggrandizing protest, playing to the crowd, playing to her fans, playing to the media, at the expense of tennis and her innocent opponent. Masur again:
“The match tarnished tennis and was a stinging blow to sportsmanship… the match was ruined, and Osaka’s great moment was clouded..”
V. Playing a “mother card” was worse.
“I have a daughter and stand for what’s right for her,” she told Ramos on the court as she swore she’d never cheat, while she was cheating. This was flagrant grandstanding, Everyone knows Williams is coming back from child-birth, intensifying her feminist fans’ passion, but it has nothing to do with the game on the court. Because she is a mother, her coach’s hand-signals don’t count? Good theory, Serena. So now tennis players who are parents have greater credibility than the rest. Is that the Williams Rule?
VI. Carlos Ramos was the Ethics Hero in this fiasco.
The umpire Williams accused of sexism has a strong record of being strict with all infractions by both genders. Williams accused him of sexism because he is male, an action itself that is bigotry. She had the wrong umpire to try that tactic, probably knew it, and impugned his integrity anyway. Nice. To his credit, he did not buckle under her “Do you know who I am?” assault, which is what this was.
The pro-Serena chorus, which includes most of the sports media, are still spinning madly to find Ramos at fault. Pam Shriver, the former player who is now an ESPN analyst, said “Ramos helped derail a championship match by being rigid beyond normal protocol by not giving first a soft warning for coaching, not communicating effectively to defuse an emotional player and by not allowing a player to let off more steam before giving the third code violation that gave a game at a crucial time in a final. No four-letter words were used that I heard.” That statement makes Shriver another Ethics Dunce on this train wreck:
- A soft warning on cheating? Really? Ramos is not obligated to follow the misguided practice of his less competent colleagues. He enforced the rules.
The biggest name in women’s tennis was cheating at the U.S. Open. That’s a big deal, and he was right to treat it as such, even if other umpires wouldn’t have the guts.
- It’s not the umpire’s job to play therapist with a misbehaving star. It is the players’ job to control their emotions.
In baseball, supposedly a far less mannerly sport than tennis, a player behaving like Serena would have been thrown out of the game before the second infraction.
- “No four-letter words were used that I heard.” Ugh. “Thief” may be a five-letter word, but it is far worse than any four-letter expletive, as I already explained. She didn’t curse at him she impugned his honesty and motives.
VII. The crowd booing Osaka was cruel, unfair..
…and entirely seeded by Williams, who, having set her opponent up to be vilified, then stepped in after the crowd had reduced Osaka to tears and asked the fans to stop jeering.
Later Williams said, “Maybe it was the mom in me that was like, ‘Listen, we got to pull ourselves together here.’ ” Yecchh, ick, uck, gag. Isn’t she wonderful? Did you know she was a mother?
She pulled off a bizarre tennis version of Munchausen by proxy, the mental disorder in which mothers make their children sick so they can appear heroic by caring for them. She caused Osaka’s distress, then played the noble rescuer.
I have lost all respect for Serena Williams after her performance. Her pose as a heroic role model for women is a sham. She revealed herself as manipulative, self-centered, and ruthless.
VIII. The only apologies due are those Serena Williams doesn’t have the character to utter, and apologies from the vicious and stupid crowd..
…but mobs never apologize. Naomi Osaka, the 20-year-old rising star who beat her childhood idol—I hope she has gotten over that—apologized to the fans for disappointing them and spoiling Serena’s dream comeback. This is one remnant of Japanese culture that Naomi needs to drop, quick. You owe no one an apology for winning fairly. It is notable that the U.S. Open Ethics Train Wreck ended with one of its victims apologizing to her abusers.