By Heidi Stevens
The lovable bad boy has no female equivalent.
We haven’t, historically, made room in our hearts for women who are reckless. Quick-to-anger. Irrepressible and unpredictable.
We have shunned those women. We have scolded those women. We have diminished those women.
We have not celebrated them.
They offer us nothing we need. Nothing we crave. Nothing that comforts us. They terrify us.
Bad boys, we love.
They’re dark and brooding and fearless and misunderstood and should not, of course, be expected to play by the rules. They’re larger than rules. They’re larger than life.
We watch them in awe. We’re lucky to bear witness.
Nowhere is this truer than in sports, where we expect to lay eyes on superhuman strength and endurance housed in bodies on the brink, at any moment, of combustion.
Rage? Rage is fine. From men, we get it.
If that means shrugging our shoulders at the alarming rates of domestic violence in the NFL, so be it.
If that means joking that you bought tickets to a fight and a hockey game broke out, eh. That’s the NHL for you.
If that means the occasional bench-clearing brawl in baseball, what can you do?
If that means Andre Agassi, who once asked an umpire, “Are you bull—–ing me?” yelled the F-word, muttered “son of a b—-” and spit at his opponent’s foot, is labeled a “rebel” and handed a Canon contract … well, you knew where I was going with this.
Tennis is filled with bad boys. Agassi. John McEnroe. Jimmy Connors. Benoit Paire. Andy Roddick.
They scream. They swear. They spit. They kick. They break racket after racket after racket. They get slapped with the occasional fine. Or not.
We cheer. Those rascals! What a show!
But chair umpire Carlos Ramos was in no mood to let Serena Williams put on a show at the U.S. Open on Saturday. He called her out for coaching, breaking her racket and verbal abuse, three separate code violations that cost her a game, and added up to $17,000 in fines and, more to the point, an unfortunate, permanent cloud over the match between Williams and Naomi Osaka.
“Osaka claims U.S. Open title after Serena meltdown,” sniffed Reuters.
“Serena has mother of all meltdowns in US Open final loss,” gloated the New York Post. (Get it? She’s a mother now.)
It was nothing of the sort, of course. As on-court arguments go, it was rather mild. She called Ramos “a thief.”
She demanded an apology. She didn’t get one.
“Male players have sworn and cursed at the top of their lungs, hurled and blasted their equipment into shards, and never been penalized as Williams was in the second set of the U.S. Open final,” sports columnist Sally Jenkins wrote in The Washington Post on Saturday.
Chris Evert, commentating during the game, said, “I’ve been in tennis a long time, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Ramos crossed the line,” tennis legend Billie Jean King wrote Sunday evening. “The rules are what they are, but the umpire has discretion, and Ramos chose to give Williams very little latitude in a match where the stakes were highest.”
Particularly after she dared to reveal anger, an emotion from which we recoil when it comes from a woman. It’s unbecoming. It’s unladylike. It’s unacceptable.
“All Ramos had to do was to continue to sit coolly above it, and Williams would have channeled herself back into the match,” Jenkins wrote. “But he couldn’t take it. He wasn’t going to let a woman talk to him that way. A man, sure. Ramos has put up with worse from a man. At the French Open in 2017, Ramos leveled Rafael Nadal with a ticky-tacky penalty over a time delay, and Nadal told him he would see to it that Ramos never refereed one of his matches again.
“But he wasn’t going to take it from a woman pointing a finger at him and speaking in a tone of aggression. So he gave Williams that third violation for ‘verbal abuse’ and a whole game penalty, and now it was 5-3, and we will never know whether young Osaka really won the 2018 U.S. Open or had it handed to her by a man who was going to make Serena Williams feel his power. It was an offense far worse than any that Williams committed.”
At a press conference after the match, Williams was asked what, if anything, she would do different if she could go back in time.
“I can’t sit here and say I wouldn’t say he’s a thief because I thought he took a game from me,” she said.
She said she’s seen far stronger words from male players.
“The fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that wants to express themselves and they want to be a strong woman,” she said. “And they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today. Maybe it didn’t work out for me, but it’s going to work out for the next person.”
She’s changing the game, changing the heights we know a player to be capable of reaching, changing our assumptions about age and tennis-after-motherhood.
She’s also changing the way we talk to and about female athletes. Slowly. (The speed is on us, not her.)
And maybe if we make room for women to get angry in sports, we can make room for them to get angry in life. Maybe, eventually, that won’t be a fire we rush to put out. Maybe, eventually, we’ll let it burn down the old way and make room for the new.