Monday, January 19, 2009

From Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" to "Yes, we can!"

Fifteen years ago, Congress voted to designate Martin Luther King Day as a day of service. For many, the memory of Martin Luther King evokes a moment when he gave a speech on August 28, 1963, before a crowd of over 250,000 near the Lincoln Memorial. That speech is now remembered by four words, "I have a dream," but it began as a transcript that King ultimately put aside to deliver one of the most memorable speeches in American history. On that fateful day, as King drew to the close of his prepared remarks, the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, urged him from behind to tell the people about his dream. Upon further urging from Jackson and the crowd, King delivered his famous speech to all who had gathered for the March on Washington.

King spoke of his dream being deeply rooted in the American dream, as he said...

Fast forward to November 4, 2008, and the U.S. people elected Barack Obama to become the first black President of the United States. As we commemorate Martin Luther King's "dream," the U.S. is on the verge of history, anticipating the remarkable inauguration of Barack Obama. Perhaps it is fitting that the President-elect has answered the call of Martin Luther King, Jr., by declaring, "Yes, we can!"

Monday, January 5, 2009

Revisiting Indian Wells, 2001

On March 15 2001, I was eagerly anticipating the sixth meeting of the Williams sisters as they were scheduled to play in the semi-finals of the tournament at Indian Wells. Venus and Serena Williams were two of the most exciting players in women's tennis and I was intrigued by watching them negotiate their encounters while still maintaining their close bond as sisters. I was excited to see two proud, strong African American women beginning to dominate in the sport I had played, taught, and followed for most of my life.

Needless to say, I was disappointed when ESPN announced that there would be no match, since Venus had defaulted, citing knee tendinitis.

My disappointment evoked feelings I had back in the mid-1980s when I taught tennis at UCLA. An ATP tournament was scheduled for the UCLA courts and John McEnroe was slated to meet John Lloyd in the semi-finals. I looked forward to seeing the infamous McEnroe play on the same courts where I taught. About 30 minutes before the match was scheduled to begin, McEnroe called it in—saying he was too sick to play. The tournament directors hastily organized an exhibition match that was of little consolation to the fans. The majority of the people in that crowd had come to see John McEnroe, not a last-minute substitute.

Herein lies one problem with tennis--when someone defaults, there cannot be a meaningful substitution--no matter how skilled the players who are called upon to substitute. Even if Jimmy Connors had agreed to play at the last minute, that match at UCLA would not have "mattered" to the angry fans who anticipated seeing McEnroe.

In this regard, tennis is very different from other sports. Suppose I wanted to take in a Cleveland Cavaliers' game and to see one of the most exciting players in the game, Lebron James. If I paid for a ticket and traveled two hours to see him play, I would understandably be disappointed if I found that he had been scratched from the line-up due to injury. Despite my disappointment, there would-in all likelihood-still be a game because the Cavaliers have enough players to field a team even if Lebron cannot play. Yet, if a tennis player defaults in the semi-finals or finals of a tennis tournament, even a strong substitute opponent cannot play a "meaningful" match.

So, I understand the disappointment that fans may have felt when Venus defaulted to Serena.

What I do not understand is what occurred two days later, when Serena played Kim Clijsters in the finals. Keep in mind that Serena was only 19 years old. Also keep in mind that tennis has historically been a game in which certain protocol is followed when watching tennis--fans are expected to remain silent (for the most part) during play, and they typically applaud politely for well-played points, even if it is for someone who is not their favorite player. With the possible exception of Davis Cup, fans do not usually applaud or respond vociferously to one player's misfortunes (i.e., serving a double-fault, hitting a shot into the net, etc.)

Given these assumptions, I watched with great consternation as Serena was introduced at Indian Wells, amidst the loud booing of fans. I was further dismayed to see that the booing continued after play began, with obvious unsettling effects on Serena—she lost the first 3 games of the first set. Somehow, Serena managed to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. However, when Venus and father Richard Williams entered the Stadium, the booing and ugliness grew worse. According to Richard Williams, about a dozen fans hurled racist epithets and someone spoke of skinning him alive. While tournament director Charlie Pasarell admitted that he was “embarrassed for Serena and humiliated by the crowd” his response to Richard’s allegation was curious. When asked about the racial taunting, Pasarell commented “If Richard says someone yelled something, maybe they did, but I know that's not Indian Wells people." Apparently we live in a time when there is what Eduardo Bonilla Silva terms Racism without racists.

I remember thinking at the time that tennis would finally have to confront the reality of racism. Indeed, New York Times journalist George Vescey wrote in 2002 that the Williams’ sisters could lead tennis into a more “enlightened era” by forcing tennis to come to terms with racism. Sadly, it appears that tennis has not yet done that. Most recently, the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Tour CEO Larry Scott announced its Road Map for 2009. Included in the provisions is a requirement for top-ranked players to play in four tournaments, including Indian Wells. Players who do not play will be sanctioned by not being allowed to enter two subsequent tournaments. That could obviously have huge ramifications for rankings points, but would also be a disappointment for fans.
The Williams sisters have boycotted Indian Wells since the racialized incident that occurred in 2001. Therefore, it is likely that this issue will come to a head in March 2009, barring unforeseen circumstances that could lead to a settlement before that. What troubles me most about this impasse is that the WTA does not seem to have (publicly) acknowledged that the Williams sisters’ reasons for boycotting Indian Wells are valid. I believe it behooves the tennis world to revisit the events that occurred at Indian Wells on March 15 and March 17, 2001. If I were the Williams sisters, I would insist upon a public apology for what happened at Indian Wells and seek an assurance that such an ugly incident would never happen again!

Next: “The Roadmap to Nowhere?”