Recently, a New York Times article made a lot of people very upset for asking a very simple question - if Serena Williams' physique is key to her success, why don't others emulate her? If one can ignore the chorus of the lunatic fringe, who censure the obvious (and coincidentally irrelevant) "-isms" of every comment about her that is anything less than superlative, you might notice that the question is actually a fair one - check that - it's a good question.
But just asking it has landed Ben Rothenberg in hot water with a striation of the blogosphere who conflate any perceived denigration of any individually great woman, with the denigration of all women. As such, this reasonable question, asked with what I assume are good intentions (also coincidentally irrelevant) becomes a sideshow to the deluge of righteous indignation and dubious offense taken by many who wouldn't know an '-ism' if it slapped them in the face. But this "-ism", the "-ism" of low expectations, where the pursuit of knowledge beyond the perfunctory is prohibited by a self-appointed moral police, is counterproductive. They are so obsessed with coming to the defense of those suffering from any "-ism", they won't even allow the pursuit of understanding to exit the womb. This is the worst kind of "-ism" because it robs us of even the opportunity for analysis that might actually lead to eliminating the source of the offense it seeks to kill in the crib.
Take, for example, this parody of the above article, which replaces the female tennis players in the original, with American footballers, ostensibly to elucidate the absurdity of Rothenberg's piece, and the quotes therein. Unfortunately, lost in translation is the irony of all ironies - the most absurd comments in the original article come, not from men, but from other women. The culprit in the presumed disrespect the piece supposedly visits on Serena, comes not from the author, or some sniveling dark hand behind it all, but her fellow professionals. Which begs the question - by eschewing a rational competition with her athletic prowess, for an irrational competition for aesthetic appeal, who really loses out on the former, and who is responsible for the subjugation resulting from the latter? In my view, Serena is laughing all the way to the bank, and her contemporaries, if they are to be believed, have only themselves to blame.
Speaking of which, that is actually one contention in the piece with which I would take issue, not because it is offensive, but because I believe it to be the following false premise: if other women in the game wanted to achieve a clearly advantageous (from a sporting perspective) physique, they could. But the paucity of like-minded and like-bodied contemporaries is merely a matter of choice, rather than a limitation of their genetics. Now, discussing genetics runs the risk of bleeding into questions of race. This has been the case ever since Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder contended back in 1988 that black Americans were "bred" by slave owners to have superior innate physical abilities. In this context, black athletes (and their unsolicited defenders) are particularly sensitive about the discussion of genetics factoring into the prevailing success of black athletes as a group.
Despite the fact that many blacks make the same assumptions about their athletic prowess that others do, the offense comes from the presumption that, given their genetic head start, a black athlete who achieves athletic success is simply doing what they're supposed to do, and thus less deserving of praise. After all, would you congratulate a male sprinter for defeating a female sprinter, given his predisposed advantage? Conversely, any white athlete who is even remotely competitive, is lauded as a modern-day David holding at bay the innate advantages of an army of black Goliaths.
While these assumptions are offensive to many, resisting them of the sake of black athletes as a group, does not exclude recognizing individual black athletes whose athletic abilities are well beyond the sixth sigma. Not all blacks are athletically gifted, nor are all black athletes relatively gifted to athletes of other races - and those that happen to be don't succeed exclusively due to their individually innate capacity with which they were born - it could just as easily result from hard work and training - which happens to be the case with Serena (and Venus for that matter) whose father compelled them to do push ups and sit ups nightly from a very young age, learn to throw a football, and other unique muscle building exercises...for women, anyway.
Therefore, citing Serena's physique as a factor in her success does not necessarily negate the other qualities that make her the champion that she is. Conversely, try as we may, (with the best of intentions) we can bury our heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge those gifts. But this omission will not necessarily elevate her other qualities, as the key to her individual success. The answer is clearly somewhere in the combination of the two, but when we approach a great athlete from the perspective that there are only certain qualities we are allowed to discuss, we do ourselves the disservice of not fully analyzing all factors that contribute to success. As such, we diminish our capacity to identify and nurture the same in others, whom we would seek to help achieve their maximum results. That proverbial head we bury in the sand is metaphorically cut off.
I should also point out that Serena Williams is not the only black tennis player on the WTA tour. Therefore, discussing Serena's achievements is an individual assessment, and the true racism lies not in honestly analyzing all the factors in her success, but in the assumption that any of those qualities are due to her race. The failure of other black tennis players to achieve any success on par with hers (including her sister who shares a gene pool) plainly dispels that uncomfortable myth. So whether one comes to her defense as a black woman playing tennis, or one launches an attack on her that is actually or just perceived to be, racially based, the results are equally pernicious, because both ascribe too much significance to her race.
Serena is a great tennis player, with an extraordinary physique, deep skills in her tool kit, and a competitiveness that has brought her to the pantheon of great players in the history of the game. These are facts that are undeniable, and that she happens to be black is entirely irrelevant to that. This is one of the most important things to take away, not only from Rothenberg's piece, but from her career on the whole. Rothenberg does not ascribe her success to her race, but to her individual physical qualities - and of that ascription, would it were any other player of any other race, in all likelihood it would not be met with such vehement resentment. It is only in the context of racial bias, or a desire to mitigate racial bias, that it does. By this measure, the article and the question posed by it, can lead to the mitigation of racial bias, but only if it is allowed to be asked, which the lunatic fringe of Serena's supporters, by the fervency with which they attack the piece, ironically wind up preventing. And the one who suffers that unintended consequence is...Serena.
The question of her femininity is almost entirely irrelevant to her record as a champion. The author didn't even call that into question, either in intent or practice. That can be blamed entirely on the answers of her contemporaries to the question of why others don't emulate her physicality - as if to be, or not to be, as strong, fast, flexible and resilient as she is is a boolean choice available to all her contemporaries. But I would beg to differ. There are certainly players on tour who might have the natural genetic template to build a similar physique if they chose to pursue it. But I would argue that such a choice is not available to most players, and to assume that it is eschewed by competitors simply as a matter of aesthetics, even if players insist that is the case, constitutes a false premise that is neither probative nor informative. The real question is why they don't bother to try? Isn't it some failing of their commitment to compete?
In fact, the responses of her contemporaries bear some analysis of the irrational competitiveness of women on the WTA tour: is their objective to succeed on the tennis court or in some ethereal realm of aesthetic appreciation - either within the game or in their personal lives? One could argue that it is doubly irrational to be concerned with the latter, because it would translate into financial benefits, if (and only if) there is commensurate success on the field of play. There are a lot of beautiful tennis players ranked 100 to 1,000 that most have never heard of - this is as it should be. One can argue further, (and pointlessly, in my opinion) that Maria Sharapova is more beautiful than Serena because hers is a physique that is more in line with tennis fans, and not that of an elite athlete. But this too is largely a matter of taste and largely irrelevant to their place in the competitive record of the sport. Isn't this all that truly should matter? So while the road is paved with good intentions, insisting that Serena be appreciated for her aesthetic appeal, as well as the functional qualities of her physique, leads, in fact, to a continuation of the problem of an irrational competition.
Furthermore, eschewing a competitive advantage that might result from a less aesthetic, but more effective physique, entails a misplaced priority on something that the tennis world ought to be the last place one might find it. That speaks to the irrational competitiveness of the women on the WTA tour, and not viewers that may or may not find personally attractive, a certain body type. Does anyone care if any women find the physique of JJ Watts aesthetically appealing? Of course not, precisely because his physique is functional, and it is the function for which he is lauded. The paucity of similarly superficial emphases on aesthetic appeal on the ATP tour is not the result of some insidious conspiracy to subjugate women to the demands of male-driven interest.
It is the result of a proper priority placed on functional qualities by the players themselves, who would grow an elbow straight out of their forehead, if they thought it would give them a competitive edge. Collectively or individually, they would never in a million years indicate a preference to remain less muscular or less fit because it is more appealing in the abstraction of their chosen field of endeavor. The men are almost monolithically committed to success on the court, and many would take any opportunity to achieve that success (up to and including illicit means - a subject for another post) regardless of the consequences, because the priority is on success, and not appeal.
I mean, can you imagine if Rafael Nadal's ATP profile photo looked like this:
Instead of like this:
He would be laughed right out of the locker room, not because the first photo lacks aesthetic appeal - to the contrary one could argue its only appeal is aesthetic - but that would be precisely the problem. So what of the collective self-perception of his female colleagues?
The website wtatennis.com has rightfully moved away from profile photos that look more like this:
...which I applaud, not because they are not beautiful, but because they have nothing to do with why we even know who they are. As such, does it make sense to point the finger at Rothenberg for asking a question about athletic qualities, and getting answers that are right in line with the absurdity of photos like these? I believe the WTA is coming to their senses and realize that because they are responsible for the impression the world has of women's tennis, they must lead from the front, and avoid the celebration of an entirely irrelevant point of judgement.
Count me among the supporters of the game who is hoping that the players will follow the WTA's lead. Women who view the world of professional sports as unduly focused on the pulchritude of its female participants, at the expense of an appreciation of their athleticism, do themselves no favors by castigating articles like Rothenberg's - after all, his only crime was posing a question about functional body sculpting. That the answers he got back were dripping with commentary perceived to be sexist or racist (neither of which can be assumed unless one attaches Serena's the individual qualities to all women - an absurd proposition), is damning of her contemporaries, and not their messenger - but boy have some tried to kill the messenger on this one.
The truth is, somewhere in this conversation, in deep dark places, where we only talk about things at parties, the irrational competitiveness of these women, aspiring to intangible and ethereal qualities at the expense of the rational competition of their sport, must surely constitute a more salient question than the author's motives. We should all be asking why in the world would a professional athlete care whether she is perceived as beautiful to the extent that she limits her athletic potential? Rather than insisting that Serena Williams be perceived as beautiful because she's a great athlete, and thus feeding into this misplaced priority, would it not make more sense to address the irrational desire to be beautiful in a completely inappropriate context? Either her own desire (with which she has, according to the article, come to terms - and hence the article should be celebrated) or her millions of female supporters who tangentially, vicariously and desperately hang on her every success and/or perceived appreciation thereof?
It is no more progressive to insist that Serena be universally embraced on questions of aesthetic appeal, based on her unquestionable pedigree in an athletic assessment, than it is to insist that a female athlete should be as interested in being beautiful as they are interested in being successful in their chosen field of endeavor. Both are absurd, and both feed the absurdity of her colleagues body image. I contend that for some, Serena Williams is a beautiful woman who happens to play tennis magnificently. I contend also that for others, Maria Sharapova is the beautiful woman who also happens to play tennis - not as well as Serena, but pretty well.
But the former part of each of those contentions, is a matter of personal opinion which we can no more morally oblige anyone to hold, than we could deny the latter parts thereof. Insisting on anything else would side-step a rather obvious conclusion, alluded to by Rothenberg and universally ignored by all those who would (with either the best or worst of intentions) step into the "sexier" but largely irrelevant debate, rather than the reason we actually bother with sports. For this is Rothenberg's gift to Serena and anyone reading the piece, if they'd actually read it with genuine curiosity, rather than prejudiced derision:
The records have leave no room for personal opinion - you either did or you didn't. And it is the very freedom afforded by this underlying principle of sports, that we are judged by what we do and not how we look doing it, that could actually liberate those of us under the real, or perceived, yolk of one "-ism" or another.
Would it were so in all of life.