Monday, March 21, 2016

INDIAN WELLS: "ISMS" AND "SCHISMS"

What exactly is sexism?  Is it like art, where you know it when you see it, or does it require a fixed definition?  I'm a firm believer in the idea that words matter and definitions matter; the one without the other creates a murky waterway of innuendo and obligations, driving people to their battle stations, without any sense at all of what it is they're fighting for.  Political polarization has never been greater in this country:  whether your red, blue, purple or green, the telltale sign of your political orientation is the camp to which you report any time an issue comes up that brings it into relief.  The same could be said of the blogosphere when it comes to tennis.  The minute somebody says the word, "women", one is required to declare their position on their place in the game, as if that is something to be determined thereby.

But what happens when definitions are ill-defined?

Indian Wells CEO Ray Moore made the following comments, universally derided as sexist, prior to the final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka:

"I think the WTA - you know, in my next life when I come back I want to be someone in the WTA, because they ride on the coattails of the men.  "They don't make any decisions and they are lucky.  They are very, very lucky.  If I was a lady player, I'd go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born, because they have carried this sport.  They really have."

Cue dramatic gasp, and clutching of the chest.  The words themselves could be interpreted offensively on a number of fronts:  from the reference to women getting down on their knees, to thanking God that two men were born that have been carrying the sport, to the very idea that the sport suffers from a disproportionate emphasis on the men even at joint events.  Of course, Serena was asked about his remarks and had this to say, right on cue:

"I don't think any woman should be down on their knees thanking anybody like that...I think Venus, myself, a number of players - if I could tell you every day how many people say they don't watch tennis unless they're watching myself or my sister - I couldn't even bring up that number...So I don't think that is a very accurate statement.  I think there are a lot of women out there who are very exciting to watch.  I think there are a lot of men out there who are exciting to watch.  I think it definitely goes both ways."

Curiously absent from this response, given almost entirely by rote, is the central complaint of Ray Moore:  it's not the women he's complaining about, it's the WTA, which at the moment is run by a man.  And the question of whether they are doing everything they can to add to the interest in the women's game, is an entirely separate question of whether the women are playing the wretched supplicants to the men.  That's because it is only viewed through the prism of an ill-defined notion of sexism, and incredibly gives a pass to an organization which must continually evaluate itself and the role it plays in promoting the game.  

Let us suppose for a minute that, in fact, the women's game were not entirely healthy, and the men's game did in fact bear some responsibility to uphold their sisters on the other side of the schedule?  What then would you make of Moore's comments?  Would he still simply be a sexist trying to denigrate the women's game, or someone concerned with the health of the WTA, because of the important role they play at the tournament of which he is CEO, and the paucity of promotion and proper management under which their great athletes toil?  You see, if your first and only reaction is to go to your battle stations and decry the messenger as a sexist, you won't even get to the more salient question of which you should truly be concerned if your concern is for the health of women's tennis.

When people decry the lack of racial diversity in tennis, does anyone interpret that as, in and of itself, the ravings of an out of touch racist, or someone who wants to deepen the pool of athletes and fans of the game?  When one decries the paucity of American stars in the game, the current crop of young yankees notwithstanding, is this seen as an anti-American bigot, looking to dismiss Americans from the game, or the very real concern that the traditionally most lucrative market for sports in general, and tennis in particular, may be lost to an entire generation?

Why then do we fall to our knees and pray to the Gods of political correctness that we might be delivered from the sexism of the grey old men of tennis, looking down on the world's center courts like the faces of the Kryptonian judges in "Superman"?  Is there an expectation that the WTA can and must raise the profile of the game with equal effectiveness as the ATP, or isn't there?  And if not, why not?  

That's the real sexism:  the assumption that by merely criticizing women, or more accurately those charged with the stewardship of their game, they are being denigrated as a whole.  In fact the opposite is true, the low expectations of sexism compels us to attack any genuine commentary on the direction of the game, with the WTA at the helm, rather than hold their feet to the fire and demand that they produce a product that is the equal of the men.  There are cases where the women's game outshines the men's, and to her credit Serena did point out the fact that the women's final of the US Open in 2015 was sold out before she lost her semi-final to Roberta Vinci, and more significantly, before the men's.  That's saying a lot given that the two finalists are two of the greatest players ever to whack fuzz off the ball in the history of fuzz whacking.  

But it was so obviously an anomaly that it has to be pointed out as a point of refutation.  How many times has that happened in the history of the US Open, or any of the majors, or any of the joint WTA/ATP events?  Serena has played her part, and for this she is duly compensated:  aside from her PR challenged blonde nemesis from Siberia, she is the highest paid female athlete in the world.  Most of the credit for this belongs to the two headed beast that forms her imaginary rivalry with Yuri Sharapov's daughter, and more importantly, not the WTA.

If you can find your way out of the camp, and if you care about women's tennis, there are a lot of questions about the decision making of the WTA over the last few years that can and should be asked.  Good questions that would inform the ill-formed, but no less pertinent comments of Mr. Moore, for which there are as yet few good answers:
  • Why does the WTA continue to treat their Year End Championships (whatever the hell it's called these days) like a traveling circus?
  • Where the hell was the WTA when Shahar Peer was being treated like a political tennis ball and denied entry to one of their premiere tournaments?
  • Why do they distribute ranking points in a convoluted and irrational system, leading to majorless #1's that aren't worth the paper they're written on?
  • Why do they persist with this obscene experiment with on-court coaching, when the coaching is clearly doing more damage than good?
  • Why does the WTA continue to sell sex and get away with it, then decry sexism when they're called on it?
  • Why is the blogosphere obsessed with men's tennis, if measured by its collective commentary, by comparison to the women's game?
You see, I care about women's tennis.  I grew up wanting to play like Martina Navratilova, I modeled my serve after Hana Mandlikova, and I still watch youtube clips of Justine Henin's matches where ever I can find them.  I'm not a sexist, and because I'm not a sexist, I don't falsely praise the quality of women's tennis out of a tacit and imminently sexist presumption that this is as good as it gets.  My expectation of women playing tennis is that they will be as athletic and skilled as the men, because that's what I grew up with, and that's what I've always enjoyed, and I know that's what they're capable of.

So please spare me the self-serving righteous indignation over sexist comments - the sexist comment that was implied, but unjustly ignored, is the assumption that the WTA has less of a responsibility to women's tennis, and by association tennis in general, than the ATP.  Nobody says boo when the same question is asked of the men, and the reason is more telling than the fact:  because everyone expects the men to carry their own weight.  When they don't, they get called out on it, and nobody runs to their battle stations to decry the sexism of criticizing men's tennis.  No, the only way to hold the WTA to the same standards as the ATP is to...well, hold them to the same standards.  

That isn't accomplished by hiding from an intellectual discourse on the state of women's tennis, and the role of the WTA, behind "isms" and "schisms" that are as facile as as they are useless.
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