Serena Williams and the Theater of Public Apology

Her recent spat with — followed by olive branch to — Maria Sharapova was prudent but also pointless

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Jon Buckle / Getty Images

Serena Williams talks to the media during previews for Wimbledon Championships at Wimbledon on June 23, 2013, in London

There’s a moment toward the conclusion of the new documentary Venus and Serena when onetime tennis champion John McEnroe pulls Serena Williams aside to tell her that he thinks she got screwed by a bad call during Samantha Stosur’s upset of Williams at the 2011 U.S. Open final.

“I think you got screwed,” we hear him say. “O.K.? There’s no doubt about it. But then it’d have been way better if you’d just said it.”

(MORE: Sloane Stephens: America’s Next Great Tennis Hopeful)

The “it” McEnroe was referring to was certainly not what Williams jawed at the umpire during a changeover, calling the official seated some four feet above her a “hater,” “out of control” and cautioning her to look the other way if she ever spotted Williams walking down a hall.

“Why do I have to apologize?” we hear Williams ask McEnroe, after he tells her she’s “the best thing we have in tennis.” “I’m tired of apologizing. For something that’s not even like … I kinda feel, I just have people picking on me. I’m done.”

Done? Not really. Williams found herself in a tennis-court-size pot of hot water after victim-blaming comments about the teen victim of the Steubenville, Ohio, rape were published in a Rolling Stone profile of the recent French Open winner. According to the profile’s author, Stephen Rodrick, Williams also apparently took a veiled potshot at her sometime rival Maria Sharapova — who is reportedly dating one of Williams’ exes — and, on Sunday, she had to apologize to her too.

(MORE: Michelle Obama and the Delusion of Hecklers)

Was the Sharapova apology the right thing to do? Maybe. It certainly made headlines in the sporting press, and the only way to make them go away was to address them head-on. But just once, I wish that every potentially offensive utterance or intemperate remark by a famous person didn’t have to be accompanied by a hasty public prostration. As New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum (writing on Twitter about a certain other high-profile apology/nonapology shitshow from last week) put it, “the theater of public apology — and apology-analysis — is starting to freak me out.”

Agreed. In the same way that Paula Deen’s cringe-inducing Friday series of YouTube videos did nothing to convince anyone that the Southern-born evangelist for deep-fried food doesn’t harbor antiquated ideas about African Americans, perhaps it’s sometimes better for foot-in-mouth famous people to not say anything at all. (One imagines that Williams, sitting before the assembled reporters at the Wimbledon complex on Sunday, was in no mood to apologize to the lanky Russian, especially after Sharapova’s snarky comments the previous day about Williams’ reported current boyfriend, coach Patrick Mouratoglou. “If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship, and her boyfriend that was married, and is getting a divorce and has kids,” said the No. 3-ranked Sharapova. Ouch.)

Our expectations for these sorts of apologies mean that they often come across as scripted, predictable and, worse, insincere. Nor do most of these attempts at atonement communicate a larger truth, namely that fame, fortune and the immense expectations, privileges and pressures that accompany them can lead to or magnify a person’s ignorance and bad behavior. “I can barely understand how the Williams sisters haven’t lashed out under pressure a hundred times more than they have,” wrote Brian Phillips last September, in a tour-de-force essay on “Serena the Conqueror” in the online magazine Grantland. “The point is: It doesn’t matter, because Serena isn’t playing for your approval, doesn’t need your approval, and kind of turns the whole question of your approval into wasted breath.” Just let Williams and Sharapova play — it’ll all come out in the Wimbledon wash.

76 comments
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mensa2
mensa2

pwarn25, I find that this situation has just been blown out of proportion, and it is certainly not  Serena who contacted the media!, some sleaze ball overheard a personal telephone conversation, and reported on it, then  Maria had to add her 2 cents by making a statement that she does not know if it is TRUE! This is not a good time for this type if crap too service, I think it is deliberate, and vicious, especially while Maria is dating one of Serena's Ex's.  I hope that Serena continues her Steam-Roll and 'Win' Wimby again!, and close the door on Maria, who has not claimed an American status, and is still shunned by her Russian teammates.  But let's face it, this is a good opportunity for Maria to distract Serena!

pwarn25
pwarn25

 @pangermeier See it's ignorant people like pangermeier that we as a society needs to watch out for. This lady has opened SEVERAL schools in Africa for the betterment of young ladies. I'm sure she's done more for young women and men than you could ever dream of, but she's a "failure as a human being"? She's disappoints you b/c she's a champion and you just harbor anger b/c you're most likely some loser. 

Fact:

1. Serena has been cheated on the tennis court more than any other player that has played the game and she's the MAIN reason why tennis has an electronic calling system AFTER a tennis official cheated her in front of millions during the 2004 US Open. Her and her hard work was sacrificed and she was barely even given an apology. I'm surprised she hasn't gone off more b/c I could list SEVERAL incidences in which she has been blatantly cheated. Can you list more than one incidence for Maria Sharapova? No. Roger Federer? No. Rafael Nadal? No. Steffi Graf? No. Martina Navratilova? No. Chris Evert? No. Not even John McEnroe.


2. John McEnroe made it a career of bashing his fellow tennis players on court...something Serena has never done. He also made himself popular by going after the officials for no reason. Something Serena's never done unless she was provoked. People think it's "cute" to cheat her, walk away, and then when she expresses her displeasure, you label her as "classless". 

3. People are just mad b/c you thought that she would have been smeared with steroid scandals by now. HA! She's been an Amazon beauty for almost her entire life. Even Andy Roddick said she was stronger than him at age 10. You people are just angry that she's still going strongly and refuses to roll over for untalented "IT Girls" like Maria. Too bad because isn't going anywhere anytime soon, so be mad...stay mad.


pwarn25
pwarn25

Facts.

1. The journalist Stephen Rodrick is slime and set out to defame Serena on purpose. Serena had a PRIVATE conversation, he eavesdropped, asked her who she was talking about, she said she wasn't saying and he took it upon himself to guess Maria Sharapova.

2. Maria is  a hater. She's been taking shots at Serena for the past few months about Serena's body and build and Serena hasn't said anything nasty to her EVER. 

3. Serena apologized to Maria on the behalf of the journalist bringing Maria into the story, not bc she was actually talking about Maria, and if you follow tennis, no one didn't even know that Maria was with Dimitrov at the time the Rolling Stones article was written (March). Therefore, the slimy journalist WAITED until he could bring drama to publish the article. 

4. Predators and rapists are so happy at the negative reaction Serena got for her advice to young ladies and parents. They realized that people would rather cry "don't blame the victim" instead of having young ladies be aware of their actions. Predators are rejoicing over ppls stupidity.

5. I would rather have my daughters be forewarned and take personal responsibility, than to have to have her live with the fact she was raped or MURDERED b/c she allowed herself to be put in a reckless situation by drinking too much.

6. Most people reporting on this situation, including the author of this piece, just want FB and twitter followers, because you're less than a human being and a HORRIBLE parent if you chose to ignore Serena's advice and didn't pass it along to your own daughters. MOST DID, but are playing a hypocritical role to appease the masses. I guess ignorance begets ignorance

7. The rest of you claiming Serena is "classless" or "idiotic" or "manly" or on "steroids" have never liked her and you don't matter b/c she is still winning. You're mad she beats your fav and laughs in your face after she's done it. You will never like her but guess what. She hasn't lost not ONE ENDORSEMENT throughout her long and successful career, so you can keep hating. AND she's worth 100M dollars...hate even more. 

alicia1
alicia1

Thank you for this article! I was really inspired and glad to see people thinking outside of what is promoted or what is deemed politically correct! Great discussion...

2013yourwelcome
2013yourwelcome

Wow, besides her comment which didn't bash the victim at all but merely tell her parents what all parents need to hear which is responsibility. This is why, tlc (I believed) created a show about raising your kids because for some odd reason the modern-day parent lacks that innate ability. And class? When did we start mixing tennis with class? Hmmm. Maybe when a particular black women turned the sport into her personal threshold, but hey lets stay classy. This is beyond non-sense, I think this is the time we realize that the word hater defines the crowd great black athelete are enshrouded in. Thank god she is getting paid because this self righteous bs would have driven me nuts.

Nathan123
Nathan123

Yeah, we really gotta take our celebrities less seriously, this is starting to get stupid.

ClaudellHaynes
ClaudellHaynes

Shut the hell up all of u jealous of Serena including Maria S. Get a live.

kimmjoe
kimmjoe

What happens more frequently than a Lindsay Lohan need for rehab:

A public apology from Serena Williams.

markdbernstein
markdbernstein

Most public apologies, especially by sports figures are less than worthless. I don't care if Serena and Maria like each other and would be surprised if the did. What's next, basketball players have to apologize after every game for talking trash?  Just as it was Lebron James's goal to hurt Tim Duncan's feelings it is Serena's and Maria's goal to hurt the others feelings....by beating them on the court. The rest of the nonsense is  to enable the media to sell ads by acting like the creep we all knew in school who would run over to someone and tell them that little Johnnie said you were a no good so & so...what have you got to say to that???  It's really quite pathetic and can you please just return os to the action on the court. It's better in every way and no one needs to apologize.

pangermeier
pangermeier

In the end, it's all about legacy, about how you'll be remembered, and what you leave behind to make things better for those who follow (thanks, Martina N.).  It's about who you are as a human being (thanks, Chris E.). Those who compete at the highest level, and understand that, well, they know how to win, and lose, with class. 

Serena shows no sign that she will  ever be able to understand that. She's a great tennis player, and a failure as a human being. And we as fans have to decide what's more important to us (thanks, Tiger).



randycool5858
randycool5858

Serena is one of the greatest tennis players in the world but one thing she still havn't  learn yet and that is class she still has these childish bad temper out breaks  and foul mouth, i don't know if she will ever learn that but that's what makes her ugly.

dee
dee

Here is Serena's apology for her remarks "

“I am deeply sorry for my insensitive and misinformed comments. It was not my intention to cause the victim and her family any additional pain. But I did, and I am sorry. I am grateful to them for the opportunity to personally apologize, and I am humbled by their strength, grace, and forgiveness.

“I also want to extend an apology to the millions of sexual assault victims in America whose pain could have been compounded by my inappropriate remarks. Rape and all forms of sexual assault are completely unacceptable, no matter the circumstances. Sexual assault perpetrated against women and men is never acceptable and *never* the fault of the victim.”

This is the official response by the Victim's family

Serena Williams reached out to the family of a victim in a rape case after the tennis star was quoted in a Rolling Stone article saying “she shouldn’t have put herself in that position.”

Williams, in England preparing for Wimbledon, spoke to the victim of the Steubenville, Ohio case, her mother and a family lawyer for about 30 minutes on Wednesday, the lawyer said.

“Serena was very nice, very sincere and it was a very well-received conversation among two women and a young lady,” attorney Bob Fitzsimmons said on Thursday.

And to be honest, as the remarks about 'someone assumed to be Sharapova' were made by Serena in a phone conversation to her sister that the reporter overheard, I am still having a hard time seeing why she needs to apologize for those remarks.

TheSirianExoPod
TheSirianExoPod

Yeah boys and men shouldn't rape, even if intoxicated, and of questionable morality and soul. I'm so totally ok with any future daughters I may have getting blind drunk at parties with boys and grown men without proper supervision - because I'm so awesome, and because Feminists clearly said Boys and Men shouldn't rape, thus making Serena Williams wrong in her statements. Its not like Feminists are once again playing the Victim Angle for public exposure despite being completely wrong. I mean, thats totally not like them...

dee
dee

When I read these articles and many others about Serena I can't help but feel that the real apology that many in the tennis world want to hear from Serena, but never will, goes as follows: 
 
"I am so very sorry for existing.  
I am sorry that I am so darned good, that when I am healthy I blow the competition off the court. 
I am so very sorry that I don't look the way you feel a female tennis champion should look like, but am perfectly secure in both my femininity and my beauty.  
I am sorry that even though you give others consolation money in the form of endorsements, that I win more matches than any of them, more slams and am the only woman in the Forbes list of 100 richest athletes based on my talent and not on my looks. 
I am sorry that even when you try to beat me down I come back stronger than ever, more beautiful than ever and keep winning. 
I am sorry that I keep proving you wrong and that at 31 I am playing the best tennis of my life. 
I am sorry that I don't match the caricature you have created of me and that I am fully and unashamedly myself at all times. 
I am sorry that even though I am a black woman I feel that no body is inherently better than I am and that I am entitled to the same treatment that other women get. 
I am sorry that I exist and that I will never go away so that I don't challenge your narrow world view. 
 
You will never hear that apology and never should! Serena is #1, Serena is 31 and Serena is going strong. I am looking forward to Wimbledon and to some good tennis.  
 
If Serena wins amazing, if someone else wins great. If Sharapova can finally beat Serena and it is a good match Great. This is Sports people, not a life or death situation.

amarshall54
amarshall54

What  Serena said about the rape victim is true ... underage girls should not be drinking until they pass out, simple as that.  That does not make what the boys did OK, or right in any way.  But if I was a young girl, I would not put myself in that position, so  to speak.  What Serena  should not do is comment on the personal life of a competitor in any circumstance in which it can become public.  And apologize ... forget it ... if you have to apologize, don't say it!  I'm am sick of a person with a big mouth saying something and then giving an insincere apology the next day.  Say it, or shut up!

duckee_88
duckee_88

Serena has been a classless act on and off the courts from the beginning of her career.  Serena could learn a thing or two from Sloan Stephens. People are more than willing to give Serena a pass based on race and her status as a great tennis player.  I am glad Maria stood up to that and gave her a taste of her own medicine.  When she threatened to stuff a tennis ball down the lines woman's throat in the most menicing way possible, it made me sick, who does that, what normal person does that, what parent teaches their kid that it's ok to make threats like that, what fans would support an athlete like that, is that what happens with "roid" rage?

riccismiles
riccismiles

I didnt find her comments to be "victim blaming". After every story about kids and rape (that is people 17 and under), I've always been amazed by the amount of BOOZE involved. If grown men are having issues making the right decision to NOT RAPE WOMEN, why do we expect our children to behave any better, especially in the case of alcohol abuse. SERENA said the girl could have had better judgement -YES- and that she is lucky something worse didnt happen to her -YES-. Her comments are ADULT and directed towards people who seem to have no issue with the amount of careless behavior exhibited by the OTHER ADULTS. WHY are their children drinking so much? WHERE are they? Who raises kids to run off and drink until they cant stand up? My parents didnt and most of my friends are the same. To me, she shouldnt have apologized, but I guess it means she'll make more money because we the people are kinda dumb.

rickw
rickw

Serena is a great tennis player. Right up there with Steffi and Martina in the top 3 of all time. However, that doesn't make her intelligent. What she said about the Steubenville victims was idiotic and helps perpetuate the idea that the victim is actually the person who did wrong. In light of her own personal life decision to date a married man with children she should keep her mouth shut about other players personal life. Maria had every right to call her on the carpet about that one. Being at the center of tearing a family apart is no small matter.

Robine
Robine

It's always whites that are apologizing -- actually bowing and prostrating -- so this situation is something of a breath of fresh air, even if non-news.

FrankRizzo
FrankRizzo

Everyone (in the US) has freedom of speech, but that does not mean you are free from the repercussions of what you say...

I agree people are way too sensitive now, but if you say something dumb, especially if you are in the public eye, you are going to pay the price.

ParkingManager
ParkingManager

Athletes are good at playing their sport. Other things, they just learn on the job. Some people crave the attention, others do not. If you crave the attention, then obviously, when you share that much with the public, you're gonna make mistakes in public. The fact that your apology is insincere means the learning experience flew right over your head.  

The metric is the clicks. Sites want clicks. If you're not clicking on the stories, someone else is. That's why they keep doing the stories. It's an idiocracy.

magitch1
magitch1

Solid article. I'm so tired of people having to "beg" (Paula Deen's undoubtedly heartfelt word) for forgiveness. Freedom of speech means the freedom to say things people don't like. And if you don't like it, don't listen to it. Don't support the person personally, on line, in office, on TV, with ticket purchases whatever it is, just don't do it. 


The freedoms set forth in the Bill of Rights can often be messy but they are necessary to maintaining this great country. Although, I fear for some of those rights these days.

j.r.lakeside
j.r.lakeside

If more reporters were decent journalists rather than people trying to build their careers on the backs of others, we wouldn't hear about all this meaningless crap and not have to ask questions like this.  This "writer" like many others manages to come off as superior to the people being covered. Put a mic on your mouth and let's see how many times a day you are apologizing for some stupid statement. We call do it and none of it is news worthy. But it's easier to report on b.s. than it is to do real work to build a story of value to those reading it. 


Pathetic. 

dre23222
dre23222

Good article.  The entire situation is unfortunate and crazy.  I still feel Maria is just stupid and ignorant.  If you knew before hand that an apology was offer to you, why would you come and still want to counter act.  Why not be the bigger woman and walk away.  She just wanted to stir more drama and create confusion.  That was petty and dumb.  But this is a woman some people call classy.  She is not classy at all.  She is just like any other person.  What she did was ignorant and foolish.  She didn't have to bring someone else family matters into the situation especially if you wasn't sure she was talking about you.  When Vika was asked the question, she said NO COMMENT.  If I have a question, I will go directly to the source.   Maria is nothing. Sorry to say, but what she did speaks nothing.  I hope all is drama go over and everybody go on about business and play tennis.  Hope Serena have a good time and defend her title. Stay focus and let all the rest of the stuff go away.