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.”

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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.

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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.