Serena Williams argues with chair umpire Carlos Ramos after a loss in the U.S. Open final.

Julian Finney/Getty Images

DiCaro: On Serena Williams, Rage & Crying At Work

If Williams isn't allowed to stand up for herself at work, what woman is?

Julie DiCaro
September 11, 2018 - 3:16 pm
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(670 The Score) There was something heartbreakingly familiar about Serena Williams’ face as she watched the U.S. Open title slip away from her Saturday morning. A quivering of the lip, a shining in her eyes, her face crumpling as she fought to hold back tears of rage and injustice. It was a struggle many women recognized.

While the world watched, chair umpire Carlos Ramos punished Williams for the same actions that we see men get away with on the court regularly: smashing her racket and arguing with the umpire. In fact, here’s a 10-minute compilation of Roger Federer acting the exact same through the years.

"It’s not fair," Williams insisted to the umpire. "I don’t cheat to win, I’d rather lose."

Moments later, Williams was assessed a game penalty for calling Ramos "a thief" and demanding an apology.

"I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things," Williams said after the match. "I’m here fighting for women’s rights and for women’s equality and for all kinds of stuff. For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game, it made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never taken a game from a man because they said 'thief.'"

It’s certainly not the first time Ramos has gotten into verbal spats with players. At this year’s Wimbledon quarterfinal between Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori, Djokovic was issued a warning after both he and Nishikori smashed their rackets into the ground. Nishikori wasn't issued a warning, prompting Djokovic to say to Ramos "double standards, my friend, double standards." And in 2017, after Ramos issued Rafael Nadal a warning for taking too much time between games, Nadal told Ramos, "You will have to give me a lot of warnings during this game. Give me the warnings you can because you will not referee me any more."

Both Djokovic and Nadal got away with telling Ramos off. Williams didn't. It’s also worth noting that while Ramos has a reputation for sticking players with ticky-tacky rules infractions, he’s never penalized a player a game point in a match as high profile as the one Williams played Saturday, which she lost 6-2, 6-4 to Naomi Osaka.

Which brings us back to the issue of women and anger. A friend once told that women cry when they're frustrated because crying is the only emotion women are allowed when they are angry as children. Over the years, I’ve discussed the humiliation of crying at work out of anger with so many women, and I just assume we all suffer the same affliction. For so many of us, the tears come, unbidden and unwanted, when we feel we are being treated unjustly. Crying is an automatic reaction to feeling enraged and helpless, not a ploy for sympathy, as many accused Williams of.

Watching Williams’ familiar stoicism collapse under the strain of the latest injustice she was forced to deal with (in addition to her beads, jokes about her body type, a prohibition on the types of clothing she wears and countless other indignities too numerous to list)  hit close to home for many women, including legend Billie Jean King.

ESPN personality Mike Greenberg also sprang to Williams' defense.

Even though we’ve seen multitudes of men verbally abuse umpires for decades (Jimmy Connors once called a chair umpire "an abortion" and John McEnroe ... well, John McEnroe exists), being dressed down by a woman was more than Ramos could take. Whether his unfair treatment of Williams was driven by misogyny, racism, his ego or something else entirely, we may never know. Easier to suss out, probably, are the motivations of the men who cheered on Ramos via social media, all while lecturing women about "playing the gender card." Australian cartoonist Mark Knight gleefully shared his depiction of Williams mid-tantrum, which quickly drew condemnation as both racist and sexist from across the globe.

Even the greatest female athlete of all time seemingly can’t get away with being angry at work if that anger is directed at a man with any power whatsoever over her. And while this revelation isn’t news to the millions of women who have been labeled "hysterical" or "difficult" for exhibiting the same emotions as their male colleagues, it's devastating. Because if Williams can’t get away with standing up for herself at work, what chance do the rest of us women have?

For all the abuse that’s been leveled at Williams over the course of her career, she stands in a position of professional safety that any woman would envy. She’s wealthy enough to be able to forgo working the rest of her life, should she so choose. She has millions of dedicated fans who respect and support her. Most importantly, she has the backing of some powerful allies, including the Women’s Tennis Association, men’s players James Blake and Andy Roddick and well-known sports writers like the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins and ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. King even penned an op-ed on Serena’s behalf.

But for many women, daring to be angry at work means standing alone in a job they can’t afford to lose, especially in male-dominated workplaces. Too often it means finding the courage to speak up, then rushing to the bathroom to stem the tears. And so to see Willams do what so many women wish they could do, to tell a man he had wronged her and that he owed her an apology was a powerful moment for us "regular" women. And to watch as so many debate the merit of her actions is mortifying, though no less powerful. If there was any doubt that society hasn't yet conferred legitimacy on women’s emotions, it was put to rest Saturday.

Not everyone agreed that Williams’ penalty was uncalled for. On Monday, Martina Navratilova weighed in via the New York Times, saying that Williams' behavior warranted her losing a game point.

Navratilova wrote:

But in her protests against an umpire during the United States Open final on Saturday, she also got part of it wrong. I don’t believe it’s a good idea to apply a standard of "If men can get away with it, women should be able to, too." Rather, I think the question we have to ask ourselves is this: What is the right way to behave to honor our sport and to respect our opponents?

While Navratilova’s goal of elevating one’s behavior for the good of the sport is laudable, it also smacks of the well-meaning men who tell women, smack dab in the middle of a storm of online harassment, not to "feed the trolls." It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect women to always take the high road, especially in situations where they're being treated unfairly. There's value in standing up for oneself and making one’s voice heard, even if it’s not the daintiest of behaviors. Sometimes, letting a bully have it is the only way to stay sane.

To her credit, Williams composed herself quickly after the match ended, putting her arm around the winning Osaka and imploring the audience to stop booing the result. By that time, the damage was done and moment was ruined. Both Williams and Osaka were in tears, one over the unfairness of it all, the other because her dream of facing and defeating her hero was tarnished by events beyond her control. The silver lining in all this is that the match sparked conversations between men and women, online and in real life, about the constraints on women in our society.

After the match, Williams was introspective about her place in history.

"I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions, and that want to express themselves, and want to be a strong woman," she said. "They’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person."

There are still plenty of men out there in the working world who don’t get it. But thanks to Serena Williams, maybe today there are a few more who do. Unfortunately, those men don’t work at the U.S. Open. The tournament announced Sunday that issued a $17,000 fine to Williams for her actions.

Julie DiCaro is the co-host of the "Julie & Maggie Show," which can be heard Saturdays on 670 The Score. Follow her on Twitter @JulieDiCaro.​