I love tennis. I play it whenever I can (rather badly) and I am an avid fan. If there is tennis on TV, that’s what is showing at my house. I follow a number of the athletes, I’m on top of the news from the sport, I know exactly where the tour is going next, I have every tournament’s app on my phone.
Let’s face it. This is a sport created by upper class white European men. It started in France and most of the rules were created in England. It has a deep tradition that has made it difficult to respond to changes in cultures and our changing understanding of the world. It’s been slower to adopt technology than other sports. It has its flaws.
One of those flaws is that many of the rules are vague and are up to the umpire to decide if they need enforcing. So while on paper the rules of tennis may seem fair, the enforcement of the rules can vary widely. Implicit bias can certainly enter the court as the umpire makes those decisions. Case in point is the US Open's Womens Final this month. Serena Williams was given three code violations during the match, the final one for arguing with the umpire, which cost her a game and potentially the match.
I’m not going to debate whether or not Serena Williams broke the rules. What I want to point out is how the system made it possible for the rules to be enforced unfairly. As many male tennis players stated on Twitter, they have said much worse (oh so much worse!) to the same umpire and not been called for a code violation. So why was a woman? Here is an example of where implicit bias seemed to have taken hold. The umpire was reacting to an angry black woman. Not a tennis player. Was he trying to put her back in her place? Whether the umpire’s reaction was to her gender, her race or a combination of the two, no one knows. She only had to be judged to the standard in the umpire’s head, the ideal female tennis player.
Tennis is an example of our greater society that we’re currently living and working in. In our society there are rules that we all follow without thinking. There are rules that are vague that we enforce upon those around us in different ways depending on how we read the situation. We don’t usually take into account the culture of the other person or if the expectations or ideal in our head is inappropriate. We react. This is what we’re talking about when we say we’re fighting the white supremacy culture that’s in the water we swim in. We’re fighting against the centuries of cultural norms that are very white European in our expectations and trying to open up our minds to other ways of doing things. What other new ideas and innovations and ways of doing things are we missing out on because we’re focused on doing things they way they always have been? How many voices have we silenced? How many innovative ideas have we lost?
Changing the rules will only go so far. We have to change our minds, re-learn behaviors, and adapt how we react. That’s not easy for anyone at the best of times. But we will not see a world that is fair and equal for all until we do.
Because of this I will continue to work towards the Beloved Community and challenge white supremacy culture when I see it. Even in my beloved sport of tennis.
CER Operations Manager and Communications Consultant