What’s So Funny About the “Williams Brothers?”

This is part of an ongoing series of guest posts by those in academia and in the professional world of sport. This week’s post is written by Dr. Nancy Spencer Ph.D, a Sport Management Professor at Bowling Green State University.

On October 13, Shamil Tarpischev, head of the Russian Tennis Federation appeared on a Russian television show (Evening Urgant) with former player Elena Dementieva. During the interview, the host of the show asked Dementieva what it was like to play the Williams’ sisters. Before she could respond, Tarpischev interjected by calling them the ‘Williams’ brothers,’ and describing them as ‘scary.’ Merlisa Lawrence Corbett urged the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) to respond to the derogatory comments. Several former players Martina Navratilova and Katrina Adams – both now members of the media – also tweeted their disapproval of Tarpischev’s remarks. Martina even called for the ouster of Tarpischev. By the end of the week, heads of both the USTA and WTA had responded to the derogatory comments.

This is clearly not the first time that sexist comments have been made about world-class female athletes such as Venus and Serena Williams or others. When former Wimbledon winner Amelie Mauresmo emerged on the tennis scene in 1999, WTA players Lindsay Davenport and Martina Hingis said it was like playing against a man. In 2013, after Marion Bartoli won the Wimbledon Women’s Singles title, BBC announcer John Inverdale made sexist remarks, suggesting she needed to become a great tennis player since she would never be a ‘looker’ (like Maria Sharapova). And when Baylor University star Britney Griner led her team to the 2012 NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship over Notre Dame, ND Coach Muffet McGraw said it was like playing against a guy, a statement she meant as a compliment.

In 1988, sport sociologist Mike Messner wrote about the dilemma facing women athletes who become so good that they are said to ‘play like men.’ Messner called it a “double-edged” sword. He explained that on one hand, it appears to be a compliment about an individual woman’s skills (indeed, Tarpischev later claimed that was what he meant). On the other hand, the implication is that because she is so good, perhaps she is not a ‘real woman’ after all.

By the end of last week, Stacey Allaster, Chairman and CEO of the WTA announced that Tarpischev would be fined $25,000 (the maximum allowable) and suspended for a year. Allaster also sought to remove Tarpischev from his position as Chairman of the Board for the Kremlin Cup, a position he has held for 18 years. In announcing these sanctions, Allaster said that Tarpischev’s comments were “insulting, demeaning and have absolutely no place in our sport.” She described Venus and Serena Williams as “outstanding human beings, incredible sportswomen, and amazing role models who have done so much to inspire women and girls around the world.”

Meanwhile, Dave Haggerty, the President and CEO of the USTA called on Tarpischev to formally apologize to Venus and Serena. Less than a week after making the initial comments on Russian television, Shamil Tarpischev issued a letter of apology that is now posted on the WTA website. In it, he apologizes for the “insensitive remarks” which he understands “could be construed as discriminatory by the public.”

The USTA and WTA have not always been swift to speak out on behalf of the Williams sisters. When Richard Williams reported that he and his daughters faced racist epithets at Indian Wells in 2001, the tournament director Charlie Pasarell replied that ‘those weren’t Indian Wells people.’ To be fair, that incident occurred before Stacey Allaster or Dave Haggerty were in leadership positions with the WTA and USTA, respectively. In reporting on Serena Williams’ response to Allaster’s fine, the New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg wrote that she “praised the swift and decisive action taken by the WTA.” If Serena can praise the actions of the WTA, that is good enough for me. Hopefully this incident and the swift responses of the WTA and USTA will serve to curb the thoughtless sexist (and racist) comments about female athletes at all levels.

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