Sports can tell us a lot about our culture, and ourselves. This week, two events have brought that to light rather boldly.
The other night I watched a tennis match. Nothing unusual you might think, except for me it is something that happens in rather specific circumstances these days: when Serena Williams, the number one rated female player in the world is playing. I love Serena, because I love excellence. She is, arguably, the greatest player in their chosen sport that I have ever seen. (I have taken to referring to Michael Jordan as “The Serena Williams of Basketball”). Despite being upset in the Australian open finals, Williams has won 21 Grand Slam tournaments, the third most all time, and the second most in the history of open women’s championships, and is an odds-on favorite to pass the record this year.
In this particular match she was facing Maria Sharapova, an incredibly accomplished tennis player in her own right. Sharapova has won 5 Grand Slam tournaments and their rivalry has been the defining one in women’s tennis over the past several years. Sharapova has won 84% of her Grand Slam sets over the past four years. She is also, according to Forbes, the highest paid female athlete in the world, earning $29.7 million dollars in 2015. She is a remarkable athlete.
But she is no Serena.
In fact, Williams has dominated Sharapova in a way that makes “rivalry” seem a misnomer. In addition to having won four times as many Grand Slam events, she has won a higher percentage of sets (91%), and her ranking (9945 points) Is 60% higher than Sharapova’s (5965). More tellingly, in the past 11 plus years, Williams has beaten Sharapova 18 straight times! In other words, the only tournaments that Sharapova has won in the past 11 years are ones in which she didn’t have to play Williams. Williams dominates Sharapova in every way.
Williams lags behind Sharapova in overall earnings, generating $24.6 Million in 2015, more than $5 million less. That, in and of itself, is shocking, given Serena’s unquestionable dominance, but it gets even more bizarre when one looks closely at the numbers. It turns out that Williams earns almost twice as much in prize winnings ($11.6 million to $6.7 million). The difference is in endorsements. Sharapova, despite her clear inferiority, earns almost twice as much money as Williams in celebrity endorsements ($23 million to $13 million).
The second event is hard to miss. Sunday millions will watch what some call the biggest sports event of them all, the Super Bowl. The Denver Broncos will face the Carolina Panthers, quarterbacked by Cam Newton. Newton is another extraordinary athlete. This year he has led his team to a remarkable 17-1 record, falling only seven points short of becoming only the third team in history to reach the Superbowl undefeated, and nobody (at least with any sense and knowledge of football) doubts that it is because of Newton that they are there. Newton is not your “ordinary” quarterback. At 6’6” tall and 260 pounds, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw more than 30 touchdown passes (35) and run for at least 10 touchdowns in a single season. On top of that, he has a wonderful reputation in the Charlotte community for his charitable work, especially towards children and people of low income. In addition, after every touchdown he notably gives the ball to a child in the stands. He smiles and laughs openly. He dances in the end zone after scoring.
And yet Newton has been roundly criticized for his behavior. Despite his extraordinary talent and performance, outside of Charlotte he is seen as more scoundrel than hero. He is regularly the target of critical sports commentators, angry phone calls to talk radio stations and irate letters to the editor. He is called “entitled,” and a “spoiled brat.” His behavior is scrutinized in a way and with a vengeance that go far beyond the normal resentments about another team’s successful stars. People bring up an incident of theft in college, which he has taken responsibility for and apologized, or the fact that he has a child out of wedlock (just like Tom Brady, the “Golden Boy” quarterback of the New England Patriots). The depth and breadth of resentment toward him has become the subject of pages and pages of sports writing.
Why is it that both Williams and Newton are so challenged to receive the rewards seemingly due to them?
There is a reason for this discrepancy. Race.
Now I know that there are some people who will say, “Why does everything have to be about race?” They will say that there are other African American athletes, even quarterbacks, who have been well loved and accepted, and no doubt that’s true. And I have no doubt that many of these people have no conscious idea that race is at the heart of the fact that Williams or Newton “just rub me the wrong way.” But both Williams and Newton have gone places where few black athletes have gone before. They feel no compulsion to act grateful and deferential for having been allowed to participate. They make no attempt to assimilate into “normal” (read “white”) patterns of behavior that our predominantly white culture is used to. They fully embrace not only their appearance, but their culture as well. In another generation they might even have been called “uppity.”
Sharpova is the classic blonde, thin female athlete. She looks great in commercials, if that’s what you’re looking for and, it appears, that is what people are looking for. Serena, on the other hand, is, proudly, African American, raised in Compton. She doesn’t have the classic stereotypical “cover girl” body. She is strong and muscular, not lithe. And she is dark, not light.
Newton, who will be only the sixth black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl out of 100 who have started, does not “manage” his behavior in a way that makes people “comfortable” like some other stars. His is not “classy and polite” like Peyton Manning. He fully embraces the African American, hip-hop culture of his generation. He dances because he feels like dancing. He laughs because he feels like laughing. He boldly embraces his talent and accomplishments. In a culture that expects players, especially quarterbacks, to copy the behavior of white role models who have preceded them, Cam Newton doesn’t care. He acts like himself.
The absurdity of this is obvious to anyone who pays attention, and yet some may say, “It’s hard to feel too sorry for Serena…she makes millions per year for playing a game.” But that’s not the point. Because the same truths show up for African American women across the board. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median weekly salary of female full time wage earners in 2015 was $734 for white women, 20% higher than for African Americans ($611), and 34% higher than for Hispanics and Latinas ($548). And of course, that doesn’t even take into account whether or not people have jobs at all. As of the last quarter of 2015, unemployment rates among white women were at 4%, among Latinas 6.7%, and among African American women 8.1%, more than twice as high as white women. Serena may still make a lot of money, but she still makes less than inferior white players.
The criticisms that Newton has visited upon him are remarkably similar to those that African American men face every day when the are told that they are too loud, too “urban”, too threatening, too brash, too showy, or “arrogant,” even when they become President of the United States.
Ironically, it is often the same people who claim that America is a meritocracy and that race is not an impediment anymore to success who ignore Williams’ and Newton’s amazing success and criticize them for being tough, or for being too “cocky,” as if those might not be exactly the attributes one would have to embrace in order to excel in a system that tells you every day that you are not one of the pretty ones, the smart ones, or the chosen ones. Serena’s parents taught her well that this is a system that will not acknowledge your gifts, you have to acknowledge them from the inside! Newton learned to enjoy life from his grandmother who taught him to dance and celebrate himself, because he couldn’t count on society to celebrate a big, black man. He knows exactly what he is dealing with. “I’m an African-American quarterback that may scare a lot of people,” he says, “because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to.”
So I will cheer for Serena every time, and I will root for the Panthers on Sunday, and, even more importantly, I will use their example to remember that we live in a system that still values dark skinned people less than light skinned people every day even when they may be the best that ever lived at what they do. Remember it when you see your children’s teachers, or your co-workers, or your neighbors. It’s only when we acknowledge the problem as it truly is that we can work to solve it.
Things need to get real before they get better.
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