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Friday, September 14, 2018

Serena and the umpire

I am a week late to the conversation about the blowup between Serena Williams and the chair umpire during the US Open women's final. I do believe there is a race-and-gender piece to this, although it is not as simple or direct as some make it out to be. Kevin Drum has a good blow-by-blow of events and I agree with his descriptions and conclusions. I repeat some of his points with additional commentary below.

• The first called violation and warning, for coaching, was correct, as even her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted he was coaching. And however common coaching is,* it does get called, against men and women, black and white. And this chair umpire is known to call it more than others. This perhaps could have been an instance in which Mitch Berman's temporal variance was appropriate and it should not have been called midway through the second set of a Grand Slam final.  And race and sex might have had something (not everything, but something) to do with the umpire's willingness to call a ticky-tack violation at that key time.** On the other hand, Drum points out that the coaching was not subtle, so an easy target for this call.

[*] Or should be. I recognize the argument, that Mouratoglou made when interviewed after the match, that the rule should be eliminated. That has no role to play here. Civil disobedience is still a crime and still punishable until the unjust law is repealed.

[**] Berman's temporal variance argument begins with one of Williams' previous officiating meltdowns, in the 2009 Open semi-finals.Williams was called for a foot fault on a second serve when she was down 15-30 and serving to stay in the match. The call pushed her to 15-40 and match point. That prompted Williams to threaten the line judge, resulting in a code violation. And because Williams had received a violation for--wait for it--smashing her racket, the violation resulted in a point penalty and the end of the match. Pattern of behavior? Pattern of targeting the African-American woman with ticky-tack calls at key moments? Bit of both?

• The interesting thing about this call--and the thing that caused many of the subsequent problems--was that Williams took it as a personal affront to her, an accusation that she was cheating. She protested the call by talking about her daughter and how she would rather lose than cheat; her later demand for an apology was premised on this understanding, that the ump had accused her of cheating. But any "cheating" was by the coach, not Williams. Coaching is "communication, advice or instruction of any kind and by any means to a player," which Mouratoglou was blatantly and not subtly doing via hand signals; the rule does not require that the player see, hear, or respond to the coaching, only that the coach engage in communication. So her taking this as an affront to her honesty or sportsmanship misunderstands the nature of the rule. The player is punished for the coach's misconduct (presumably so the player will tell the coach to knock it off). But the player need not do anything wrong for the infraction to be called.

• Williams somewhat undermined her own cause here. She insisted that she had not seen any coaching, but that is beside the point. But Williams also said she had looked up and seen Mouratoglou, but he only was giving her the thumb's-up. This suggests that she saw something and there was some communication. Unfortunately for Serena, the cameras were following Mouratoglou and it appeared he was doing much more than giving the thumb's-up.

• The second violation, for breaking the racket, which resulted in a point penalty as a second infraction, is a no-brainer--she did, in fact, destroy her equiment. And, again, the argument that the rule is stupid and made for a game that was played by delicate white men and not strong, athletic, competitive African-American women is beside the point. Again, if the rule is bad, change the rule; otherwise, follow it. A game before Osaka had slammed her racket after a mistake, but the racket did not break, so there was no violation.

• My point of departure from Drum is whether sex (and race) had anything to do with the third violation, for umpire abuse (which resulted in the game penalty). This was a judgment call and Williams was ranting. But we see men's players, especially the top men's players, given a lot more leeway in arguing with officials; it is difficult to imagine any of the top-three men's players getting called for saying the same things Williams did, especially at that point in a championship match. This infraction was not called solely because Williams is an African-American woman. But it is not an unreasonable inference that the umpire's fuse was shorter with her than it would have been with a white man, especially accounting for her position as the GOAT and the idea that the GOAT gets away with more.

• The one reason the call makes sense, apart from race and sex, is that Williams personalized it--she said, "You're  a thief." Baseball umpires, asked about the magic word that will prompt them to eject a player, say "You"--in other words, players can say a lot of words, as long as they do not personalize those words to the umpire. (To use the famous example in the movie Bull Durham, Crash does not get ejected when he screams cocksucker at the umpire, only when he says to the umpire "you're a cocksucker."). I am not sure if it is the same in tennis, but that could set her comments apart.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on September 14, 2018 at 10:52 AM in Howard Wasserman, Sports | Permalink



That was my POV when I watched the match. Those episodes were strategic. She was losing and trying to throw her opponent off the game. I thought this was blatantly obvious. Everyone here keeps talking about context but the key context is that she was losing and losing badly.

And in the large frame let us admit that it worked. No one is talking about how this was the first time a Japanese woman won the US Open. Everyone is talking about Serna. So she lost the battle but is winning the war.

Posted by: James | Sep 15, 2018 10:52:23 AM

Here one may read ,some opinions of profs , about such discrimination :


Posted by: El roam | Sep 15, 2018 10:43:06 AM

Interesting. The Times story shows that women are more likely to receive coaching violations--the first violation that started the ball rolling. One could imagine a gendered explanation for why umpires pay more attention to hand gestures (or more likely to see "coaching") from a woman's coach than from a men's coach.

The umpire abuse can't be show by the numbers. The issue was not that men never get called for verbal abuse and women do (a complaint that might be valid as to the coaching violation). The issue was whether what she said would have received the same penalty if said by a man, particularly in that game situation. I don't know how to answer that question, but the Times story doesn't do it.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 15, 2018 10:32:58 AM

NYT analysis of penalties of men and women suggest the claim that SW was held to a higher standard is a bit doubtful:


Posted by: J. Bogart | Sep 15, 2018 9:29:24 AM

He is from Portugal. I do not see that this makes him more or less likely to have a shorter fuse with an African-American player. Anyway, from the umpire's side, this is more about power than race--whether those in power, regardless of their identity, are less willing to tolerate pushback from certain people over whom they exert power.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 15, 2018 8:28:24 AM

Interesting that in finding race was a factor author does not mention umpire's name or that he is Hispanic.

Posted by: sam tenenbaum | Sep 14, 2018 9:09:15 PM

But isn't that the issue--what constitutes "unsportsmanlike behavior." It is left undefined in the rules and rests in the judgment and discretion of the umpire. The problem many people have--and there may be some merit to the argument--is that the conduct from Serena that the umpire defined and penalized as "unsportsmanlike conduct" may not have been so judged and penalized if committed by someone else.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 14, 2018 3:14:36 PM

Wasserman , how on earth , she could understand , that in that particular moment , the umpire , attributes it to the coach , and solely to him ?? She is plunged in very stressed situation .

So , knowing the rule( generally speaking ) has nothing to do here . The rule is one thing . The concrete violation , attributed to specific circumstances , let alone , not under her control , is totally different animal .

Posted by: El roam | Sep 14, 2018 3:12:42 PM

Serena is held to the same standard as everyone else - to avoid unsportsmanlike behavior. She broke the rules and when she got called on it, she made a spectacle of herself and took the spotlight away from her deserving opponent. Under these circumstances, Osaka's great win will only be remembered as the Serena meltdown match, and that is unfair to her. Thus, unsportsmanlike behavior on Serena's part.

Posted by: Anon | Sep 14, 2018 3:10:19 PM

Nonsense. She's been playing on the professional tour for two decades. She knows the rules about coaching and she knows the rules about breaking rackets.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 14, 2018 2:55:58 PM

Interesting indeed . So , it is claimed that :

" The rule does not require that the player see, hear, or respond to the coaching, only that the coach engage in communication. So her taking this as an affront to her honesty or sportsmanship misunderstands the nature of the rule. The player is punished for the coach's misconduct (presumably so the player will tell the coach to knock it off). But the player need not do anything wrong for the infraction to be called."

End of quotation :

So , even if this is indeed the rule , and even if bad one as such, the umpire , had to draw her attention , about the rule itself , and not causing her to think , that something is wrong with her conduct ( what must be perceived naturally by her , as violation of the code , and her fault ) .

The same concerning the breaking of the racket .

So , he needed ( the umpire ) to show and manifest , more sensitivity , better communication , better tact . She is in stress , in a middle of a game . Bit of sensitivity is needed . She is a woman , and African - American . Just bit , warranted anyway .


Posted by: El roam | Sep 14, 2018 2:48:07 PM

You wrote, "And, again, the argument that the rule is stupid and made for a game that was played by delicate white men and not strong, athletic, competitive African-American women is beside the point." Are you saying that African-American women have more trouble controlling their emotions than white men?

Posted by: Mark | Sep 14, 2018 2:19:40 PM

The GOAT argument is an interesting one. I can quickly thing of Michael Jordan discarding Bryon Russell and getting away with it. A lesser player almost certainly would have been called for a foul.

At the same time, I think a reasonable argument can be made for holding the GOAT to a higher standard when it comes to conduct. (I know that's not always the case, but perhaps the chair umpire would have done the same thing to Roger Federer if he behaved in a similar fashion.)

Posted by: HokieEngineer | Sep 14, 2018 1:50:27 PM

That could be. A lot of McEnroe's tantrums were similarly strategic. The variant on this that I thought of was that she knew she was not going to be able to come back, so this meltdown was a way of tanking--losing, while diverting the story away from her play (and Osaka's play).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Sep 14, 2018 1:24:05 PM

Didn't she also threaten that he would never umpire a U.S. Open match again? It wasn't just "thief" but a pattern of relentless insult, and perhaps even a lame attempt at intimidation.

To me, the most frustrating part of the Serena debate is that no one talks about the strategic aspects of her meltdown. Most observers seem to assume both that she couldn't help herself (and was perhaps justified in not being able to help herself), *and* that her meltdown had no possible negative impact *on her opponent*. The focus is on whether the umpire's sanctions cost Serena an otherwise deserving win. But isn't it also possible--and perhaps even probable--that Serena's meltdown was strategic, even if perhaps subconciously so, in the sense that her ranting broke Osaki's momentum? We assume that Serena was "just blowing off steam" in a way that was harmless (or only harmful in an abstract way to the civility of the game of tennis), but what it it were directly and personally harmful to Osaki's potential to win the tournament? We don't know for sure, but surely Osaki was very eager to keep on serving without delay, given that she seemed on the verge of throwing Serena against the ropes. When Serena got the serve back, note that she actually won two quick points (as I recall). The loss of the game, in that perspective, may have simply undone Serena's attempt to prevent a highly likely loss anyway.

Posted by: Jason Yackee | Sep 14, 2018 11:59:22 AM

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