The struggle for gender equality in sports has been an ongoing issue essentially since competitive sports have become mainstream. Many strides have been made over the years when it comes to women’s sports; however, many discrepancies can still be spotted between the treatment of male versus female athletes to this day.

A couple weeks ago, Novak Djokovic repeatedly smashed his racket into pieces at the Australian Open out of frustration for failing to return the ball in an important set. They had to halt the game for a ball kid to come and clean the mess up, yet Djokovic got off with only a warning.

Despite this outburst, it was hailed as a moment that helped Djokovic regain his focus so he could ultimately win. Djokovic received overall positive reactions from the media, with him and a reporter laughing off the incident at a news conference following the game.  

On the other hand, Serena Williams’ outburst at the 2018 U.S. Open sparked controversy. After receiving a warning that she felt was unfair, Williams engaged in an argument with the umpire. Later in the match, out of frustration over losing a set, Williams threw her racket on the ground, and then received her second code violation: a penalty point.

This enraged Williams further and she called the umpire a “thief.” The umpire then issued a third code violation for arguing with him: a game penalty. This meant that Williams’ opponent, Naomi Osaka, was awarded the match. Naturally, this put Williams at a huge disadvantage, and she ended up losing the match and that year’s Grand Slam title. Williams was also fined a total of $17,000 from her penalties. 

What was most notable about Williams’ arguments with the umpire is her accusations of Carlos Ramos (the umpire) holding her to a sexist double standard. She argued that men have fought with umpires and said way worse than her, yet they have never been as severely punished as her. 

As Williams is an African American woman, there is much discussion surrounding whether the stereotype of the “angry Black woman” is affecting her treatment by the umpires and the media. 

If you are still questioning whether sexism is at play here, you only have to browse the comments under each video. Under the clip of Djokovic smashing his racket, the comments are widely praising him.

 “One of the greatest tennis players of all time and one of the greatest racket smashers of all time,” said YouTube user adambomb30.

In stark contrast, Williams is torn to shreds in her comment section. People got nasty, with many calling her a sore loser. 

“It’s insulting to so many people that she played the mother, race, feminist, victim and parental card, lost so so so much respect for her,” said James Heggie, another YouTube user.

In both instances, the players had exhibited unsportsmanlike behavior, yet one player is hailed for his performance and the other is heavily shamed for hers. This leads to my big question: why is it that Williams gets torn apart for acting aggressive when other male tennis players do as well and do not receive nearly as harsh punishments or criticism?

Simply, it is because Williams is a woman of color in a sport that historically lacks diversity. When she gets angry on the court, it is written off as her being whiny or a sore loser because it plays into this stereotype of an “angry Black woman.” A few retired male tennis players such as James Blake and Andy Roddick came forward after this incident, admitting they had acted similarly or even worse, and had not received nearly as harsh of punishments. Most had just received a warning and were not punished further when arguing with the umpire.

I empathize with Williams’ frustration during this match. Williams has had a decadeslong career of dealing with unfair calls from umpires and yet still, after all of her success, she still has to put up with it. Even if it is not ideal to become emotional during a match, I feel it is entirely reasonable that she defended herself, as she was trying to send an important message. 

It is 2021. All genders should be held to the same standard. Unsportsmanlike behavior should be punished equally. This narrative that when male players have outbursts, that means they are passionate and outspoken versus when female players have outbursts, they are hysterical and crazy, is clearly affecting how these athletes are treated. I hope to continue to see Williams speak out about gender discrimination in sports, and see more dialogue and action aiming to solve this issue.

Marissa Conter is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter at @marissaconter. 

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