Serena Williams’ unintended activism sparks discussion

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Serena Williams is a feminist.

I stand by this statement today and stood by it even before the controversial final of the 2018 U.S. Open. And yes, I believe it was sexism that led to Williams’ point penalties and $17,000 code-violation fine from the U.S. Open.

But rather than rehashing every detail of the match, analyzing who was right and wrong each step of the way, I want to examine the answer to another question that popped into my mind as the controversy started gaining media attention.

Sure, Williams is a feminist; I guarantee you she had to work significantly harder as a Black woman to get to the top of her profession. Her numerous stats, including but not limited to the fact that she has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles, reaffirm her status as the best tennis player of the modern era.

But did her behavior at the match last Sunday exhibit that of an athlete activist?

Within the past year, a new form of sports activism has taken root in the American professional sports arena. From Colin Kaepernick’s commercial with Nike to LeBron James’ socially conscious Instagram feed, athletes across professional sports leagues have used their high visibility to speak out against the racism, sexism and xenophobia that has marked politics in the Donald Trump-era United States.

While a reemerging trend in America, sports activism is not a new occurrence.

At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Jesse Owens sprinted to win four gold medals, at a time when his presence and prowess at the games alone was an act of activism. At the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, track and field athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos both gave Black Power salutes at the winners podium, an act that got them both expelled but also served as one of the most iconic moments of the Civil Rights Movement.

In the realm of tennis, we can’t forget about the iconic match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (or Emma Stone and Steve Carell, as everyone younger than 25 knows it). This “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973 most likely wouldn’t have even occurred had there not been a huge pay discrepancy between female and male tennis players in the 1970s; the match was out of necessity.

Billie Jean King herself expressed her support for Williams on Twitter:

“When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.”

If King is on your side in a matter of inequality in tennis, you know you can’t be too far off base.

The difference between the historical instances of activism mentioned above and Williams’ match, though, is that it wasn’t intended or premeditated. She didn’t walk onto the court looking to push any type of feminist agenda. She was genuinely reacting to the injustice of her accused code violations, pointing out that male tennis players rarely get punished when they talk back to an umpire or break a racket.

Williams didn’t intend to make a stand, but she did. As is the case with many female athletes in their respective sports, they are forced to be activists when they face inequality in terms of pay or enforcement of penalties.

This activism manifests itself in a different way. Rather than choosing to post a controversial photo on Instagram or make a stance during a ceremony, Williams’ choice was whether or not to say something in the moment when she recognized the umpire’s discrimination.

Williams’ retort during the altercation, “Because I’m a woman, you’re going to take this away from me,” has now become the most important phrase at the back of every female athlete’s mind.

Lucy Schaefer writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @lucyjschaefer.