Drama and literature at their best offer illustrative anecdotes—small stories that represents larger truths. The absurdist theater of the women’s U.S. Open tennis final, along with the mania it provoked, has become just such an anecdote. It illustrates the bleak assessment Edward Ward, my former philosophy professor and friend, once uttered over cheese sandwiches in the campus cafeteria: “We live in a society where we excuse the rules, and condemn their application.”
Indifference to behavioral regulations and standards of practice had become common to the point of banality, Ward argued, subjecting anyone who attempted to enforce the rules to vilification.
For those who do not closely follow professional tennis, here’s a review of the controversy. Serena Williams, undoubtedly one of the greatest players in the history of the game, was facing a rising superstar from Japan, Naomi Osaka. Williams is only one grand slam championship away from tying the all-time record, but has recently struggled to triumph over her younger opponents (most tennis players retire in their early to mid-thirties; Williams is 37). Osaka had already defeated Williams with ease at the Miami Open in March.
It appeared that the U.S. Open was headed for a repeat early in the match, with Osaka asserting swift dominance. Early in the first set, however, the linesman, Carlos Ramos, called a court violation on Williams’ coach because he was signaling her—an illegal activity in the sport of tennis. Rather than accept the warning, Williams unleashed a reality TV-style tirade on Ramos, excoriating him for “misreading” her coach’s hand gestures and making bizarre reference to her daughter: “I never cheat…I have a daughter, and I stand for what is right for her.”
(Immediately following the match, in a rare and refreshing moment of honesty, Williams’ coach admitted that he was signaling her the entire time, making Williams look both deceitful and foolish. Most post-match commentary has conveniently omitted the coach’s confession from the record.)
After Williams lost the opening set’s fifth game, she slammed her racket into the ground, causing its frame to bend. Intentional damage to a racquet is a code violation, and Ramos penalized her a point, the standard punishment for a second offense. Osaka quickly won the next game, making her the winner of the first set with a lopsided score of 6-2. (Editor’s Note: This article originally made the error of reporting that Serena Williams smashed her racquet during the first set. It actually happened during the second set of play.)
The second set advanced quickly with Osaka continuing to make fast work of Williams. During every break in play, Williams continued to badger Ramos, indicating that she would not stop until he announced over his microphone that he was sorry for what he did to her. He ignored her expressions of anger.
After Osaka pulled ahead 4-3, Williams again berated Ramos for his monstrous failures as a human being. Bringing her rant to a climax, she called him a “liar” and a “thief.”
To impugn the character of a linesman violates the code of conduct governing play in professional tennis. Ramos flagged her for the third time, issuing the penalty of a forfeited game, making the set score 5-3. Williams pleaded with supervising officials of the tournament—one man, one woman—to overturn Ramos’ calls, and they refused. She then made the contemptible claim that excited countless social media users and political commentators around the country: “I’ve seen men get away with his all the time. Just because I’m a woman, you are going to take this away from me.”
Osaka won the second set, 6-4, and in doing so, became the first Japanese champion of the U.S. Open. The audience loudly booed and jeered throughout the awards ceremony, and the commissioner of the U.S. Open disgraced herself by saying, on air and in front of the rightful champion, “This isn’t the end we were looking for.” Williams made an attempt to recover some dignity by instructing her vulgar fans to stop heckling, but the entire event had already transformed into an ugly American extravaganza. Most infuriating was that Osaka looked dejected, unable to enjoy her first grand slam victory.
The next day, USA Today ran an opinion piece with the headline “Sexism Cost Serena Williams Tennis Title.” Many other writers and TV analysts, none of whom seemed to know anything about tennis rules or history, began reciting from the same fatuous and phony script. A few have even tried to racialize the story, though given that Osaka’s father is Haitian, that narrative has failed to gain traction.
Acting as though Ramos were self-evidently a misogynist, most media mouthpieces ignored that throughout the U.S. Open, male players have been called for 86 violations and women only 22. Nine of the 10 largest fines in tennis history for on-court violations have gone to men. Ramos himself has earned the wrath of men’s champions Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer for making calls they felt were too rigid and punitive.
The mob has also compared Williams’ tantrum with the boorish imbecility of 1980s tennis stars John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. While it’s true that both players often acted with disrespect more reminiscent of barroom drunks than professional athletes, they also benefitted from terribly lenient regulations of professional tennis. The ATP did not standardize the rules or crack down on outlandish player conduct until the late 1980s. Not coincidentally, McEnroe was ejected from the 1990 Australian Open after his fourth violation in a single match.
And yet arguing about the rules and pointing to the score of the match—it is almost certain that Osaka would have won regardless—feels oddly archaic. Many of Williams’ desperate defenders are acting in emotional accordance with some strange, eschatological commitment to identity politics, and no amount of factual information will dissuade them. Another term my friend was fond of using was “biased apperception.” The critics who call Ramos sexist without giving him the opportunity to defend himself have adopted a position and are working backwards to validate it. To pull this off, they have no choice but to excuse the rules and condemn their application. There is no debate that Williams broke three different rules, yet the lineman is sexist because he chose to apply them.
Rebecca Traister, a leading feminist writer for New York, begins her boring and predictable interpretation of the events with the following admission (which negates all the subsequent sentences in her essay):
I don’t care much about the rules of tennis that Serena Williams was accused of violating at Saturday night’s U.S. Open final. Those rules were written for a game and for players who were not supposed to look or express themselves or play the game as beautifully and passionately as either Serena Williams or the young woman who eventually beat her, 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, do.
Overlooking Traister’s weird disparagement of every women’s champion who proceeded Williams and Osaka as ugly and impassive, and her incoherent grammar (how is a game supposed to “express themselves”?), it is revealing that she prefaces her entire argument by saying that rules do not matter if the right people did not author them. The crime is not the transgression, but the enforcement.
The “excuse the rules, condemn the application” mentality is a societal sickness responsible for much that troubles our body politic.
To begin with an example that will interest those who practice identity politics, President Donald Trump has thrived on condemning those who enforce the rules. Though he regularly demonstrates a daunting pattern of dishonesty, is an unnamed co-conspirator in a criminal indictment, has seen several of his associates indicted or convicted of crimes, and continually makes a mockery of decorum and etiquette, whenever he is caught in an act of wrongdoing, his immediate response is to spit a venomous stream of clichés: “fake news,” “deep state,” “witch hunt.”
Another example is the bailout of the big banks that followed the 2008 financial crisis. Few disagreed that the world’s major financial institutions violated the rules, but the idea of accountability was suddenly radical and unthinkable.
If a connection between corporate malfeasance, presidential malpractice, and a tennis champion’s childish outburst seems tenuous, consider that in all three cases the get-out-of-jail-free card is an appeal to ideology. Rules, we are asked to believe, are irrelevant, and even themselves infringements on belief systems like populism and feminism that are regarded as more important.
The self-involvement and extreme subjectivity necessary for such a destructive belief permeates into non-ideological aspects of culture. Grade inflation in higher education, as any instructor can attest, exists largely because students cannot fathom suffering consequences for lazy or mediocre work. The issuance of assignments and exams is fine, but to actually grade them according to an objective standard is evil.
America needs a serious dose of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. One should act only in such a way that one would approve of everyone else acting in a given situation.
Writing for The New York Times, retired tennis champion Martina Navratilova wisely states, “We cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with. In fact, this is the sort of behavior that no one should be engaging in on the court. There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.”
Obvious to anyone but the willfully ignorant, this is a far better formula for a healthy society than “I don’t care about the rules.”