On Friday evening I popped along to Carrickfergus Amphitheatre to watch the home ladies hockey team, Castle, take on Irish hockey league side Ards. This was an opportunity, in the land of the World Cup Finallists after all, to see the game played at a very high level. Ten minutes before the game started, it emerged they were short of one umpire, and so it fell to me to help out.
Hockey has a four-warning system – verbal warning, two-minute suspension (green card), longer suspension (yellow card), and permanent expulsion (red card). My personal preference even with top-level teams is to try to avoid using the cards at all, if possible, managing the game as best I can by friendly chats rather than disciplining.
Here is the thing, however: if a player ever referred to me as a “liar”; ever suggested I had “stolen” something from them; or ever suggested I “owed an apology”; or certainly ever said they would see to it that I “never umpired on [their pitch] again”; I would have the red card out in an instant.
This brings us, of course, to Serena Williams. On Sunday, in a major final, she used each and every one of those terms – having already been correctly warned for coaching, and then correctly docked a point for breaking her racquet.
Unfortunately Serena, rightly a role model for many good reasons, is frankly being untruthful. She did not lose a game for using the word “thief”; she lost a game because of a series of warnings (for coaching, breaking a racquet and then verbal abuse) and the warning for verbal abuse came after a litany of outrageous accusations directed at an umpire powerless to answer back other than through the warning system. She was also untruthful even with what she said as she launched her abuse at the umpire – in fact, she had looked at her coach by her own admission, but caught on camera he had no option but to confirm he had not given her a “thumbs up” as she claimed.
Therefore, Serena is entirely responsible for a gross lack of discipline and an outrageous lack of respect for one of the most senior and respected officials in the history of the game. As she is a role model, this is worrying. It is inevitable that others will adopt a similar tone, and believe that they too can launch abuse at an umpire, over and over again, and somehow expect not to be penalised (to the extent even of dictating who umpires their matches). Nor, unfortunately, is this even the first instance within the current season of a senior woman player suggesting that a particular umpire should not be allowed to officiate her matches ever again – an appalling notion.
To try then to dress this all up as “sexism” is then a further outrage, not because sexism is not a problem in the game but rather because it absolutely is. Serena herself raised some legitimate examples post-match and there was much truth in Billie Jean King’s tweeted response in support of Serena noting differential coverage and reaction to female players versus men. However, to try to present outrageous abuse of an official as somehow part of a battle for women’s rights is offensive to those who are battling for women’s rights. It is also a shift in Serena’s position, from initially denying she had received coaching to claiming instead that she had but somehow was treated differently for having received it. This specific case had nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with a senior player trying to abuse her position to attack an official and have the crowd join in. We may only be thankful that her opponent, Naomi Osaka, was not put off and went on to claim a thoroughly deserved victory.
There is another important issue here. What we saw on Saturday night was utterly inappropriate abuse of an umpire. It is no surprise, therefore, that tennis and indeed other sports like hockey are struggling to bring through officials (as evidenced by my own call into action on Friday) – who on earth would take on a role which, when done correctly, sees you accused of stealing, lying and sexism all while being treated as a pantomime villain?
Serena is plainly not a fundamentally bad person, as her post-match defence of her opponent showed. She still has time to put this right by simply apologising to the umpire and accepting publicly that her conduct was unacceptable and should not be held up as an example to anyone. However even if she does not, everyone else must come to terms with the fact she stepped well, well over the line on Saturday – not least because the cause of tackling sexism in sport deserves better than a nonsensical association with poor behaviour, and because sport itself simply cannot be played without umpires.