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Sport as a Reflection of Dangerous Trends in U.S. Society: The Case of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open

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A few days ago American tennis star Serena Williams opened up regarding her now infamous U.S. Open Final Loss to Naomi Osaka on 9 September 2018. In a forthcoming interview, Serena Williams reasserted her belief that sexism played a role in the penalties she was assessed during her loss, saying “If you’re female, you should be able to do even half of what a guy can do”. While the equality of male and female athletes should certainly be something we all strive for, it seems that (as with so much in current U.S. society) the point was missed.

 

Most American commentary on the debacle was conspicuously one-sided, as commentators looked to either blame the rules, the umpires, or—of course—sexism in a bid to deflect blame. Even the few articles which acknowledged the blame that lay with Ms. Williams’ actions seemed to do so half-heartedly, with Jerry Bembry of The Undefeated opining that, “like solid officials have done in every sport when confronted by great athletes expressing themselves in the heat of the moment, [Spanish Referee Carlos] Ramos should have looked away and ignored her continued complaints”. Make no mistake, Mr. Bembry should be commended for at least acknowledging that some of the blame lay with the athlete’s behavior, but essentially telling a referee to not do their job—by ignoring unsporting behavior—is hardly something that would alleviate an existing double standard (if indeed there is one); quite the contrary, such actions would only encourage double standards to continue!

 

And indeed this is why Serena Williams’ outburst says something about the current state of American society which goes far beyond the tennis court and sports, or even ideas of “sexism” or “racism”. Rather, Ms. Williams’ behavior—as one non-American commentator in the Australian press, Greg Baum explained—was one which caused everyone to lose:

 

In her outbursts, she invoked sexism and, implicitly, racism, and so managed to set back both those momentous causes. Williams came from a long way back in life, but she is now just about the most privileged black woman in the US, the most indulged, too. It makes it hard to buy the interpretation that this was some sort of stance against oppression. And it obscures the mighty, desperate and real battles that are being fought around the world in the name of both.

 

Mr. Baum’s comments are far more useful than those emanating from the U.S. media, which goes to show that there is a very real problem in American society which is being actively ignored by the news media. In fact, one look at the fifteen minute highlights of Ms. William’s interactions with umpire Carlos Ramos shows just how ugly things got. The American fans, instead of calming Ms. Williams down, decided to—in effect—egg her on by cheering for her whilst she berated the umpire. The crowd’s behavior goes beyond just the boorish and banal form of nationalism which American sports fans can sometimes be guilty of, rather it was done with the sense that she was doing something “right” . . . which completely overshadowed the well-deserved victory of her Japanese/Haitian opponent, Ms. Osaka.

 

It seems that American society has allowed improper behavior—like the poor sportsmanship of Ms. Williams in this instance—to be excused by invoking the rhetoric of “social justice” (indeed, cartoon criticism of this incident was roundly criticized as “racist”, again missing the point of what social criticism is all about). What American sports media fail to see is that this trend does not look good in the eyes of the rest of the world, nor does it serve to further any of the causes which it purports to further! Indeed, as Mr. Baum points out, the fight for racial and gender equality is a very real and very righteous cause. But by excusing immature behavior in front of the world by invoking these same causes, it only serves to demean and obscure those messages. Just like encouraging referees to “look the other way” does nothing to ensure fair refereeing, invoking “sexism” and “racism” to defend poor sportsmanship only serves to belittle the fight for equality which these causes are engaged in.

 

American news media would do better to encourage and congratulate Naomi Osaka for a well-deserved victory in what is the biggest moment of her career to date, rather than try to find excuses for Ms. Williams disrespectful behavior. After all, sport is above all a human endeavor which celebrates the accomplishments of athletes, regardless of their background; poor sportsmanship goes against those humanist values of mutual respect. Sport is certainly a political field, but we must do our best to not allow sport to be completely consumed by politics. By focusing solely on intersectional identities like “race” and “sex”, we obscure the “human” and—through the obsession with categorization and political correctness—risk losing our own humanity as well.

 

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March Madness: A Marginal Sociologist’s Note on Sports and Linguistic Censorship on Campus in the Postmodern Age

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As if watching my university unceremoniously bow out of the NCAA basketball tournament was not punishment enough, I had to endure a battle with my ideological colleagues at the same time. It was certainly March Madness in more ways than one. As we watched our university throw away their championship hopes, the conversation turned to our day jobs and a topic I am very concerned with: political correctness and the ongoing loss of free speech in the United States.

I mentioned a professor from our department who told me that a journal once criticized him for using the word “seminal” in an article; since the word referred to “semen” it was, therefore, a masculine word and thus off-limits. I was appalled that, for instance, writing the sentence “Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is a seminal work in sociological thought” could ever be grounds for censure. Unfortunately, the Brave New World of postmodern identity politics loathes free speech. Indeed, the brown-shirts of “progressive” ideology will be the first to tar and feather any who step out of line. Simply put, if you do not want to be labeled as a “racist”, a “sexist”, or some other “’cist”, you might not want to raise your ugly head in modern academia by going against the dominant strains of one dimensional thought. I know the punishment one will face because I live it every day.

In my conversation with colleagues, I recalled out loud a graduate seminar from a few months back where the professor explained to us that the word “penetrate” should be avoided because—like “seminal”—it has a masculine connotation. Shockingly, my colleagues seemed to agree with this assessment of “penetrate”. They told me that “penetrate” was a “sexist word”, and shouldn’t be used. I informed them that “penetrate” is certainly not a sexist word. At that, one colleague told me “well, it comes from ‘penis’”. At that I had to ask—was my colleague now a linguist? I thought we were studying Sociology! Unfortunately, my colleague had clearly not taken four years of Latin in high school; “penetrate” comes from the Latin “penetratus” and related to “penitro” meaning “to place within” (see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/penetrate and http://www.dictionary.com/browse/penetrate ). Indeed, the word “penetrate” has nothing to do with “penis” but, I guess, it is my colleagues who have their minds in the gutter.

 

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Its Not the Word Origin. Imags From: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/penetrate (Top) and https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/penetrate (Bottom)

 

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The Cambridge Dictionary Seems to Have No Qualms With Using Penetrate Alongside Female Pronouns. Image From: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/penetrate

 

As if to prove my point, the announcers on the television in front of us lamented the failure our team’s offense: “they just cannot penetrate the paint” was a familiar refrain. Indeed one of the main tactics in basketball is to “penetrate the paint” in order to get as close as possible to the basket so as to have an opportunity for a high percentage shot.

 

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A Diagram Of How To Penetrate the Paint in Basketball. Image From: https://www.google.com/search?q=penetrate+the+paint&client=safari&rls=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj-tKavnvXZAhUU8mMKHZYnAGoQsAQIWg&biw=1268&bih=628#imgrc=pkNbq7XuVzAeNM

 

Unfortunately for my university, however, the players were not able to do this. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be surprising: given that instructors at the university are all too happy to do away with the word “penetrate”, I should not blame the players for not penetrating the paint. After all, at this point, they may not have even known what the word means! As students and educators alike, we must all stand up to the attacks on free speech which are taking place on university campuses across the United States. If we want to raise the next great generation of American citizens, we must stand up in the face of fascism and censorship regardless of the form it takes. In fact, some might say that we must “penetrate” the walls which political correctness have erected around our thoughts. Who knows, it might just have a positive effect on our basketball teams as well.