Serena Williams forced sportswriters out of the ‘toy box’

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Of the many outstanding components of her game, Serena Williams is perhaps best known for her commanding serve.

Those serves, unleashed over a 27-year professional career, arguably heightened the power and intensity of the women’s game, forcing her opponents to plan for every wicked volley.

To those recounting her exploits as one of the best female tennis players in the world, Williams offered a different challenge.

As a scholar of sports journalism, I have watched how its practitioners have struggled to find their footing when it comes to building consensus on what exactly constitutes good sports journalism.

Williams’ presence as a black woman in a historically white and patriarchal sport, her commitment to activism, and her willingness to air her personal challenges to the public have forced sportswriters to reevaluate professional standards that urged them to focus only about what happened between the lines.

Apolitical origins

Sports journalism emerged at the end of the 19th century and fully established itself as a distinct genre of journalism when newspaper publishers, in an effort to attract a wider audience, ceased to be partisan organs of the party. . The sport quickly became a lucrative way to sell newspapers.

These apolitical origins shaped its future trajectory. Success often depended on access to players and front office staff, as well as warm relationships with league officials. The main result of this arrangement has been the general reluctance of sports journalists to take a critical look at the role sport plays in our communities and in society at large.

In general, Americans often imagine sports as aligned with the values ​​they hold dear. Journalists and public officials regularly speak of sport as the embodiment of a meritocracy and a reflection of the power of the individual to overcome any prejudice or challenge.

These media narratives fail to explain how sport, despite all its feel-good moments, contributes to forms of discrimination and alienation.

Venus Williams, left, and her sister Serena at the Australian Open in 1998. Photo: Reuters

Journalists play in the toy box

By the end of the 20th century – just as Williams was emerging as a tennis star – the industry had morphed into a massive, for-profit multimedia enterprise at a time when newspaper advertising revenues were beginning to plummet.

Sportswriters had come to be seen by their news peers as playing in a proverbial “toybox” within the larger newsroom. That is to say, their colleagues considered them frivolous, lacking in seriousness. They were not there to serve as watchdogs or provide solutions, through their reporting, to problems affecting the nation or local communities.

Instead, sportswriters have simply become known as sports gurus who can analyze the intricacies of a football receiver’s routes or debate the merits of a basketball team’s zone defense.

So when Williams turned pro in 1995 at age 14, early covers avoided conversations about the unique kinds of gender-based racism a black girl from a working-class California neighborhood might face on the pro tour. .

As sociologist Delia Douglas explained, tennis has always been accessible only to people who can afford to play at resorts, country clubs and tennis academies. It’s also a sport with different rules for men and women, a practice that contributes to stereotypes of female athletes as weak or less attractive than their male peers.

But the background to Williams’ entry into professional tennis has often gone unnoticed. Coverage instead focused on her father’s efforts to train his daughters, the handover from Venus to Serena, and the sisters’ style of play. What’s more, woven through this coverage was an underlying suggestion that Serena Williams didn’t fit the definition of respectable tennis, as reporters commented on her fashion choices or wondered if her playing style was hurting the women’s game.

Sport does not take place in a vacuum

Practicing sports journalism by “sticking to sports” leaves journalists ill-equipped to cover news events that require a broader focus.

Such was the case in 2001 when fans at the Indian Wells tennis tournament subjected the Williams sisters to traumatic racial slurs, an experience that led to the duo boycotting the event for 14 years.

Researchers who studied the event found that much of the media coverage that followed focused only on the incident itself and provided little information to address entrenched forms of whiteness and patriarchy. in professional tennis.

This type of journalism is often described as episodic, in that it illuminates only the singular event, dissociating it from the forces that contributed to the specific situation. This framing technique is not uncommon in sports journalism. Coverage of American women’s gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, who was found guilty of abusing dozens of athletes in his care, tended to focus on the stories of individual victims, while describing Nassar as “a rotten apple”. And stories of intimate partner violence committed by NFL players are used to being framed the same way – a crime committed by a singular individual, separate from a system that can foster violence against women. .

But Williams demanded that sportswriters do more than analyze his serve. She has spoken publicly about her own experiences of the tragedy of poor maternal care for black women. She asked reporters gathered at her press conference after the US Open championship match in 2018 – where she had an argument with the judge and was deducted a point – if a man would be penalized so severely for doing the same.



She pushed the boundaries of women’s tennis and in doing so, pushed for women to be treated better by journalists and event organizers, calling for an end to the gender pay gap on the professional circuits.

Sports journalism research suggests that genre boundaries are changing rapidly. And the field is shedding its sporting ethos, in part because of activist-minded athletes like Serena Williams.The conversation

Erin Whitesideassociate professor of journalism and electronic media, University of Tennessee.

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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