Serena Williams’ center court meltdown this weekend was another sad example of the lack of personal responsibility our public figures take. The incident is a good opportunity to talk about apologies with girls.
Let me be clear: I think temper tantrums are understandable. Unfortunate, yes, but also part of what make us human. The point is not that Williams lost it, it’s that she failed to own up to her behavior and its impact.
According to the New York Times, Williams slammed her racket to the court twice after Clijsters took the first set. She walked to her chair, whacking the net with her racket along the way, and earned a warning for racket abuse. When a lineswoman called Williams for a foot fault on her second serve, Williams argued angrily, then approached the judge and appeared to threaten her, shaking a ball in her face.
The penalty Williams was assessed cost her the match.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for me to speak about that,” Williams said later. “I’ve let it go.” She added that she didn’t really remember what she said.
Wow. Really? By refusing to apologize, Williams sends the message that her behavior was acceptable. Even if the judge made a mistake, as video seems to suggest, violent outbursts are hardly appropriate. As one blogger noted, “Would Roger Federer do that? Would Tiger Woods? Would Venus?”
Serena Williams doesn’t speak only for herself. She’s idolized by countless kids, a relationship she has benefited from financially and otherwise. She has put herself out there, and her many endorsements and charitable work with young people make her a public figure with a responsibility to lead by example. Imagine the message it would have sent if she had said, “I really lost my cool, and I’m sorry about what I did.”
This isn’t an isolated event. The Times reports that Williams accused Martínez Sánchez of cheating at the French Open. Williams threatened on the court that she would make Martina pay for it in the locker room.
Too bad Serena’s parents don’t seem to get it, either. After Dad told reporters to “just get out of my face,” Mom actually defended her daughter’s behavior. “No,” she told reporters, “I think she should speak up for what is right.” Williams’ parents are not alone in rationalizing the misbehavior of their children. They only happen to get covered by The New York Times when they do it. In my work with schools, it is often the denial of parents of aggressive girls that prevents healthy, swift intervention.
And how about that Kim Clijsters apologized to Serena! In my new book, The Curse of the Good Girl, I examine the tendency of girls to assume responsibility when they are not at fault. When girls do it, the motivation is often to preserve the relationship (if I apologize, she’ll be my friend again) or reputation (if I make the fight end, the drama will stop and people won’t talk about me anymore). Why would Kim apologize? Williams ruined the moment for her opponent, who stunned spectators and experts alike by taking the Open after only three weeks back on the circuit since her maternity leave! During the press conference after the match, even Williams expressed shock that Clijsters said she was sorry.
If you’ve got tennis players at home, consider a conversation about this:
- What do you think about Serena Williams’ refusal to apologize for her outburst at the US Open?
- Why would Kim Clijsters, the person who was clearly taken advantage of in this situation, be the one to apologize?
- Do women and girls usually apologize for acts or situations they’re not responsible for? Why might that be?
The USTA has fined Serena Williams $10,500 for unsportsmanlike conduct and racket abuse. Failure to Apologize should be worth at least a couple bucks.
UPDATE: The New York Times reports that Williams apologized to the line judge and Clijsters. I have enjoyed some other perspectives on public response to the incident, including a post about its racist overtones, and an argument from one of my favorite bloggers against apologizing.
UPDATE 2: In response to a reader’s suggestion, I am posting the text of Williams’ Monday apology, which originally appeared on her blog:
I want to amend my press statement of yesterday, and want to make it clear as possible – I want to sincerely apologize FIRST to the lines woman, Kim Clijsters, the USTA, and tennis fans everywhere for my inappropriate outburst. I’m a woman of great pride, faith and integrity, and I admit when I’m wrong.
I need to make it clear to all young people that I handled myself inappropriately and it’s not the way to act — win or lose, good call or bad call in any sport, in any manner.
I like to lead by example. We all learn from experiences both good and bad. I will learn and grow from this, and be a better person as a result.