Serena Williams is a fierce competitor. She doesn’t let anyone tell her she can’t do something. In August, she was singled-out for having worn a bodysuit (to help prevent blood clots) at the French Open; she was told her choice of clothing was inappropriate and would not be allowed in future tournaments. So when she stepped onto the court for the U.S. Open in a tutu, everyone was talking about the 23-time Grand Slam champion’s brash notion that she should be told what to wear.
But as many of us — including me — were applauding her daring outfit, our conversations abruptly changed during the finals against Naomi Osaka this weekend.
“You are a thief.”
Those are just some of the words Ms. Williams directed toward the umpire after he docked her a point for game violations. She had first been issued a warning for “coaching,” which, for those of you who didn’t know (like me), means that her coach had been giving her signals from the stand, which is not allowed. Her second infraction was for smashing her racket against the ground in frustration over her performance in a later game, causing her to lose a point because the action came on the heels of the earlier warning.
In her frustration, she decided to confront the umpire rather than use the emotion she was feeling to empower her throughout the rest of the match. From there, the rest is history: a third penalty, which cost her a game.
I am a referee in more than one sport here in Maryland, and because of that, I have a relatively unique perspective on this interaction. I have been blessed to learn the importance of composure and presence in sports from some of the best officials in the Mid-Atlantic region. One rule my mentors taught me was to never allow yourself to be abused on the court or field. Although officials do make mistakes (we are human), we don’t deserve to be berated. And so, when I think about the lesson I learned from my mentors, I picture myself coming face-to-face with Ms. Williams, one of the greatest athletes in the world, on one of the biggest stages at the U.S. Open. If I were that umpire, I think I would have responded to Ms. Williams in a similar manner and given her the same three penalties.
Most referees are generally open to having a conversation about a call during a break of play. However, there is a difference between a conversation and a confrontation. As my mentors taught me, I don’t accept being personally insulted or threatened by a player or coach. Period.
Ms. Williams didn’t agree with the first penalty against her, and that got her heated. But, after receiving her second penalty (which was her fault), her frustration with herself and the previous calls got the best of her. And it cost her a game.
She showed her passion, but what she lacked was professionalism. I remember when I was a young athlete and undeniably hot-headed. This was a missed opportunity for her to be an example to young athletes of fighting through the challenges through her performance rather than words. Having spent so much time at this level, she knows how to maintain composure, but she took her words too far.
Many, including Ms. Williams, believe that the umpire’s decision to penalize her was “sexist,” that a male player would not be called out for the same actions. Even though I do believe there are significant disparities between the treatment of men and women in sports, the “sexist” argument for the call is just an excuse. In 2015 Chris Paul, one of the best point guards in the NBA, was fined $25,000 for his comments after a game about Lauren Holtkamp, an NBA official who called a technical foul on him that night. Mr. Paul suffered the consequences of his actions after the game. Had he done what Ms. Williams did and confronted Ms. Holtkamp during the game, he undoubtedly would have been ejected.
Sports are competitive, but there still needs to be some level of respect in the game by all parties. I hope that as my fellow officials and I step onto the courts and the fields of Maryland teams these upcoming seasons that we can have constructive communication with players and coaches rather than trying to tear each other down.
Kjerstin Lewis works at a local non-profit in Baltimore City during the work week and spends her evenings and weekends officiating basketball and lacrosse in Baltimore County. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.