On Saturday, Williams alleged that chair umpire Carlos Ramos had officiated her unfairly because of her gender. I don't think there's enough to make that case. My bigger concern was the number of major publications that instantly ran with her claim without proof.
I’m not an international superstar who’s dominated a sport like nobody before. If I were, I might make some claims without hard evidence to back them up.
But I am a journalist for a well-read outlet. And if I were going to call someone a sexist, I’d make damn sure I could prove it.
On Saturday, 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams alleged that chair umpire Carlos Ramos had officiated her unfairly because of her gender. Personally, I don’t think there’s enough meat to make that case.
But what was more concerning to me was the number of major publications that instantly ran with her claim without proof. In this instance, the coverage was worse than the crime.
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“Ramos took what began as a minor infraction and turned it into one of the nastiest and most emotional controversies in the history of tennis, all because he couldn’t take a woman speaking sharply to him,” wrote Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post.
“Serena Williams’ U.S. Open loss may be the grossest example of sports sexism yet,” read the headline above a post by Christina Capatides and Cydney Adams of CBS News.
“Blatant Sexism cost Serena Williams tennis title” was the headline above a column by USA Today’s Kurt Bardella, who wrote that Roger Federer would have had an outburst if he were in Williams’ position, whereas Serena stayed cool.
Really? He would have? And are you sure Serena stayed cool?
She certainly wasn’t fond of the warning Ramos issued her after it appeared her coach, Patrick Mouratolgou, was giving her signals from the stands — something he admitted to after the match. And she was particularly livid when he gave her a point penalty for smashing her racket in the second set.
After losing the next two games, Williams berated Ramos for more than a minute during the changeover, calling him a liar, repeatedly demanding an apology for the coaching warning (she thought he was implying she had cheated), threatening to ban him from umpiring her future matches and eventually yelling, “You stole a point from me, too. You’re a thief!”
That’s when Ramos issued a third code violation — this time for verbal abuse — which cost her a game.
This would have been the biggest tennis controversy of the year regardless of what happened next. But when Williams said she was being penalized because she was a woman, it went from tropical storm to full-fledged hurricane.
Mainstream opinions overwhelmingly sided with Serena at first. From a piece on ESPN’s Undefeated, to two CNN columns, to an MSNBC segment, to a Boston Globe video montage, all implied or flat-out concluded sexism. But in perusing each of those works, I couldn’t find any real proof.
A common comparison was John McEnroe, who was infamous for meltdowns throughout his career. Except that McEnroe was regularly penalized and once disqualified during the fourth round of the Australian Open.
Another frequent reference was former player James Blake, who tweeted that he has said “much worse” and not gotten penalized. But has he said “much worse” to Ramos? Because that’s what matters here if we’re talking bias.
A recent New York Times piece portrayed the 47-year-old as one of the more rigid umpires in the game. He gave Andy Murray a code violation during the 2016 Olympics after he accused him of “stupid umpiring.” He gave Novak Djokovic an unsportsmanlike code violation for tossing a racket during this year’s Wimbledon. He twice penalized Rafa Nadal in last year’s French Open for time violations, the second of which cost him a point.
“This umpire is, I think, trying in a certain way to look for my faults,” Nadal said after the match.
As far as the controversial coaching penalty? Hardly a first for Ramos. As tennis.life writer Stephanie Myles noted, he gave one to Djokovic and Marco Cecchinato when they met in this year’s French Open quarterfinal.
The guy’s a stickler by every indication — but there was no indication Saturday that he’s a sexist.
Many, including 18-time Grand Slam winner Chris Evert, think Ramos could have issued a “soft warning” to Williams before taking a game away. Totally legitimate point. That was a competitive final involving the best to ever play, and that third violation all but ended Williams’ chances.
But suggesting Ramos mishandled the situation is a lot different than suggesting he’s a sexist. The former can tarnish a reputation. The latter can ruin it.
To be fair, over the past few days, more pieces have come out defending Ramos and/or criticizing Williams. Evert dismissed the idea of sexism, as did ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, The Guardian’s Kevin Mitchell and the Washington Post’s Nafari Vanaski. Martina Navratilova, meanwhile, argued that even if there is a double-standard in tennis, Serena was out of line Saturday.
My goal isn’t to suggest that the media or tennis world has been one-sided on this issue. My goal is to show how easy it is for a merciless online mob to form and swallow someone whole.
There is no doubt that sexism exists in sports today. Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dismissing a reporter’s question about route-running because she was a woman last year was cringeworthy.
There is no doubt that barriers still exist for women in sports, too. I see no reason men’s sports leagues shouldn’t have more female coaches, executives or play-by-play announcers.
But unfounded charges of sexism can’t be a repercussion-free practice. Get too casual with words like that, and you can forfeit credibility, ruin people’s lives and ultimately halt progress. That might not matter to the anonymous social-media mobsters, but it should matter to people with influence.
Look, I know firsthand the damage a writer can do, because I’ve penned columns I’d give two months’ pay to have back. In May 2017, I questioned Seahawks star Michael Bennett’s qualifications as a spokesman for social progress, in part because he hadn’t apologized to a cancer-surviving reporter he had berated after a loss. Turns out he had apologized, just not publicly.
And in 2013 while working at the San Diego Union-Tribune, I openly celebrated the firing of Chargers coach Norv Turner. The piece was callous at best, and downright cruel at worst. My mother is still upset about that.
Today’s appetite for instant reaction can turn laptops and cellphones into dangerous weapons. So before making certain claims, I think it’s important to do what Serena didn’t: take a breath, and think it through.