On That Serena Williams/Steubenville Comment

By Arturo R. García

Serena Williams. Image via imgace.com

Tuesday afternoon portions of a new Rolling Stone profile of tennis star Serena Williams went online, but one section in particular set off red flags and trigger warnings online.

The passage actually comes toward the end of the piece, which RS posted Tuesday evening. At this point in his piece, Stephen Rodrick has spent time with Williams while she practices and works out and is with her when she is getting a pedicure when this apparently happens:

We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV – two high school football players raped a drunk 16-year-old, while other students watched and texted details of the crime. Serena just shakes her head. “Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”

Serena’s Hannity-like take on the case isn’t her only rightward lean. She is baffled by the tax rate in France. “Seventy-five percent doesn’t seem legal. Nobody does anything because the government pays you to be broke. So why work?”

Williams’ statements regarding the Steubenville case are revolting, of course. But it’s also surprising that Rodrick doesn’t appear to follow up — if he did, it doesn’t show up in this version of the article; the print version will be released on July 4th, and perhaps that will provide more context. It wouldn’t excuse what Williams said by any means, but it would provide more information on what went into it.

In the meantime, we’re left confused: where did this attitude come from? Were they watching the infamous CNN broadcast where both anchor Candy Crowley and reporter Poppy Harlow openly sympathized with the football players who attacked the young woman? Is she more inclined to disbelieve accusations against athletes because of her own dust-ups with the press? Were they watching Fox News, which broadcast the victim’s name on the air? Does she remember appearing in a Law & Order: SVU episode where investigators faced another “code of silence” perpetrated by a group of young men?

The rest of the article posits Williams as both devoted to her family and comfortable being at odds with the other top players in the world; fellow WOC pro Sloane Stephens (“I am definitely not that girl’s mentor”) is name-checked, while Rodrick presumes Williams is dismissive of Maria Sharapova, who is currently dating Williams’ ex, during a phone call with sister Venus.

Rodrick also directly cites white privilege as being behind the difference in the disparity between Williams and Sharapova’s marketing cache off the court:

Serena is the number-one tennis player in the world. Maria Sharapova is the number-two tennis player in the world. Sharapova is tall, white and blond, and, because of that, makes more money in endorsements than Serena, who is black, beautiful and built like one of those monster trucks that crushes Volkswagens at sports arenas. Sharapova has not beaten Serena in nine years. Think about that for a moment. Nine years ago Matchbox Twenty and John Edwards mattered. The chasm between Serena and the rest of women’s tennis is as vast and broad as the space between Ryan Lochte’s ears. Get back to me when LeBron beats Kevin Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder every time for nine years.

As Deadspin points out, the RS piece was part of a recent effort by Williams to open herself up to both the press and the public. For this attitude to be the result is tremendously troubling.

Update, 10:25 a.m. EST: Williams issued a statement on her website Wednesday morning:

What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved – that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written – what I supposedly said – is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame.

I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields – anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.

  • Firene

    I want to engage you on this, not combat you. We clearly both believe that this situation is tragic. Let’s use that common ground to understand the rest of each others points of view.

    First, it is implied. It’s implied because the warning is emphasized for the girl and not the boy in your statements. Balance out your line of thinking and I think you’ll see that no one has argued its bad/wrong to warn PEOPLE (girl and boy) of danger.

    The problem as I see it is that we aren’t warning boys of the harm they do to women. Don’t boys need to be warned? Should we warn them that attacking people is criminal? Should we warn them to never “take advantage” of people?

    Here is when it’s OK to tell girls about protecting themselves: when it’s OK to tell boys the same. When we think about the problem as teaching CHILDREN, regardless of sex, to respect one another. When we unequivocally condemn and center our discussions about rape on how we let another man become a criminal, how we failed to teach him that all persons deserve dignity and respect. That’s when it’s OK to teach the girls; when you teach the boys. We have to be accountable for these criminals, because the overwhelming social messages they receive are that women are victims. And this has everything to do with the fact that you and I are engaged in this discussion right now (that girls need to be warned).

    Its an important discussion and I’m not trying to be an imperialist on this conversation. But I think your own reply speaks to your biases in the discussion. You place a lot of emphasis on the girls. This is part of the problem and part of the reason rape will continue its epidemic; because we don’t talk about the crimes of the boys and the failings of families to put emphasis on them.

  • Firene

    Statements to the effect of “No one has a right … but…” necessarily contradict the first statement because they imply “sometimes we have a right …” Implicit in these kinds of statements is the idea that the crime is more understandable/acceptable under certain circumstances, or that the there’s a sliding scale which determines when it’s appropriate to commit a crime. It implies that sometimes the crime is justified. Even if I were to be a little reckless, this isn’t some how justification for crimes committed against me. This idea – which is very hard for us to get rid of in our culture – that people deserve bad outcomes when they’re vulnerable in public or that crimes are less criminal if the as long as the perpetrator was provoked is problematic.

    If someone assaults another person, it is always the assailants fault. It doesn’t matter if the victim was roaming naked in the bar, blindfolded, with a bottle of Tequila in their hands. None of this is justification. In fact, the perpetrator has a moral duty to help the most vulnerable not exploit them. The only reason it’s culturally acceptable to believe otherwise is that exploitation is a way of life here; we are taught that we are supposed to “take advantage” of every “opportunity” at all costs, that it’s always justified and the losers deserve what they get for losing.

    • Athena

      To add to what the person above was saying, if we want to teach safety about alcohol, don’t single out girls. Teach it to everyone. Because if we just teach girls, it implies that their drinking is taboo, when in reality among most American teenagers it’s almost a rite of passage. So teach it to everyone.

  • ISpeakMyTruth

    Why was she even asked about it in the first place? what she got to do with anything.