Sports and politics have become more intertwined than ever before, as evidenced by the whole Serena Williams saga. How did our favourite pastime become so politicised?
If you're a sports fan who frequents social media, you've probably come across the phrase 'stick to sports'. You may have seen it on your favourite athlete's Instagram comments, under a Facebook post from that news organisation you love to hate, or in the deepest recesses of Reddit message boards. You may have even posted it yourself.
Those three words arrived in the Twittersphere pre-packaged in that familiar post-internet snark, dripping with equal measures of pit-sweat and eye-roll. It has become a slogan of sorts for a certain brand of traditional sports fan – a plea to keep sports free from our increasingly fractured and politicised atmosphere.
But lately – as shown by a recent spate of worldwide sporting squabbles, from Nike's Colin Kaepernick ad to the Serena Williams saga – this ideal of apolitical sport has slowly revealed itself to be a luxury of a select few, a privilege only afforded to those who have benefited from the rules set by society, and sport's, increasingly outdated institutions. Incessant internet and social media has made us more politically engaged, more woke. We are now hyper-aware of the injustices and inequities of the world, of which sport isn't immune. Now more than ever, sport has gone from recreation for the masses to a battleground in the increasingly unavoidable culture war.
For a prime example of this muddying of the Gatorade, look no further than Serena Williams. After fighting to make the US Open final – her second grand slam final since giving birth to her daughter Alexis – Williams fell to a straight sets defeat to Naomi Osaka, one of the brightest talents in the sport. But, of course, it was what happened during the match that sparked controversy, turning Osaka's first grand slam win into an almost week-long debate, sprouting agita from all sides.
It all started when chair umpire Carlos Ramos issued Williams with a warning for supposedly having gotten coaching via a hand signal from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou in the stands. The warning incensed Williams, not only because coaching hand gestures have become so common in the modern era of tennis and almost always go unpunished, but especially because it called her character into question. "I don't cheat to win, I'd rather lose," Williams told Ramos in a breathless rage. "You owe me an apology."
That anger would later cost her the game, and ultimately the match – although Osaka was clearly the better player on the night and would've probably taken out the match regardless. After a few points didn't go her way, Williams broke her racket in frustration, which was deemed to be a second infraction by Ramos, costing her a point. In a furious response, Williams then called Ramos a "thief" for taking a point away from her – a seemingly innocuous throwaway line – which the umpire reacted by penalising her with a rare game penalty. Williams was left baffled, furious, and in tears, by a decision she says was grounded in sexism.
"I've seen other men call other umpires several things," Williams said at the press conference after the match. "I'm here fighting for women's rights and for women's equality and for all kinds of stuff. And for me to say 'thief' and for him to take a game? It made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He's never took a game from a man because they said thief. For me, it blows my mind. But I'm going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal [treatment]." Everyone who has experienced discrimination can empathise with her passionate plea.
Williams also pointed to an incident earlier in the tournament when French player Alize Cornet was charged with a code violation for switching her top around, which was back-to-front, on the court, while in the men's draw Novak Djokovic was photographed smiling with his shirt off in the very same tournament.
Those double standards and discrimination is something Williams has experienced her entire career, despite possibly being the best tennis player to ever play the game. She was one of the main reasons that tennis decided to investigate video replay technology on the courts after several bad calls went against her in the 2004 US Open quarterfinals, she has been described as "scary" to look at by the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, she has been handed penalties that wouldn't otherwise have been given to men.
But much of the ensuing outrage chose to ignore Williams' claims of unfair treatment. She was called emotional, her rage labelled a meltdown, a tantrum. Others chose to point out that Williams' actions had taken away the spotlight from the 20-year-old first time winner Osaka, who became the first Japanese to win a grand slam title. Most of those criticisms – largely made by men – were valid, but they chose to ignore Williams' experience as a black woman. Yet again, it was a privileged group trying to minimise a voice, attempting to keep politics out of sport at all costs.
And so we arrive back at that platitudinous phrase: stick to sports. As society becomes more attuned to the world's systemic injustices – the ones that hold athletes like Williams to a different standard – those three words start to sound a lot more like a tool to suppress the voices of the unheard. Williams chose not to stay silent in the face of what she, and many others, deemed to be unfair treatment. She decided, vehemently, not to stick to sports.
When the rules of the game are set by archaic institutions and tangerine tyrants, sometimes all you can do is speak out and hope it will lead to change. Sometimes, all that's left is pure human rage.