Serena Williams broke three rules in her September 8th final match at the U.S. Open. She received coaching signals, broke her racquet, and “verbally abused” the chair umpire calling him a “thief.” All three of these actions are in violation of the Grand Slam Code of Conduct. But rules are not self-enforcing; someone has to determine there has been a violation and then decide whether further action should be taken. So the question in Williams’ case is not whether she broke the rules but whether the actions taken in response – the severe penalties imposed against her – were consistent with actions taken against other players, specifically male players, for similar conduct. To that question, our answer is an unambiguous “NO!”
First, let’s look specifically at the chair umpire (Carlos Ramos) and his record on penalizing women and men. The Guardian pointed out after the incident that Ramos had gotten into arguments with Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Rafael Nadal but did not penalize any of them as he did Williams. Indeed, earlier this year at Wimbledon, Ramos issued a verbal warning to Djokovic for unsportsmanlike conduct, Djokovic angrily complained, just as Williams did, but Ramos took no action against Djokovic beyond the warning. Steve Simon, CEO of the Women’s Tennis Association, stated after the match “the standards of tolerance provided to the emotions expressed by men versus women [should be the same]. We do not believe that this was done [during the championship match].”
But beyond Ramos himself, is there a “double standard” with respect to penalizing women and men? We can’t be absolutely certain, but there are a lot of very knowledgeable people who think so. Andy Roddick, who won the U.S. Open in 2003, tweeted that he’s said things worse than Williams did, and he never faced a penalty comparable to that given to her. John McEnroe, seven-time Grand Slam singles winner, said on ESPN, “I’ve said far worse … She’s right about the guys being held to a different standard; there’s no question.” And tennis great Billy Jean King wrote on Twitter: “When a woman is emotional, she’s ‘hysterical’ and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s ‘outspoken’ and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @SerenaWilliams, for calling out this double standard.”
Uneven enforcement of rules is likely to have a discriminatory impact on members of a distinct “outgroup,” in this case black women. Rules, whether governing behavior at the U.S. Open or in the office, should be applied in a neutral manner without regard to gender, race, age, or ethnicity, and so on. But when rules, unwritten as well as written, allow for a substantial amount of subjectivity in their enforcement, as do the decorum rules in the Code of Conduct, stereotypes can affect decisions. And the biases fostered by those stereotypes can discriminatorily affect women and people of color. When people, even with the best of conscious intentions, must make quick decisions, they can act reflexively, allowing their implicit (unconscious) bias to undercut their desire to enforce the rules in a neutral fashion. That appears to be what happened in Ramos’s case.
Whether in the workplace or on the tennis court, techniques and procedures need to be in place to ensure that career-affecting decisions are not affected by stereotype-driven bias. This can be done in a number of ways: multiple inputs, monitoring, and review are obvious ways. None of these seem to be present, however, in Grand Slam tennis.
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