Seeing tennis legend McEnroe have an on-court meltdown in person became akin to some tennis fans to being a baseball fan lucky enough to catch a foul ball at a game. (This fact was repeatedly recalled during Williams’ most controversial public moment involving an overzealous lineswoman and an alleged threat.) McEnroe’s image as a tantrum-throwing troublemaker was so synonymous with his brand that his infamous on-court tantrum catchphrase, “You cannot be serious!” was used as the title of his memoir. A recent American Express commercial spoofs McEnroe’s confrontational image, featuring him perplexed when the customer service is so good that he misses out on the chance to argue with anyone.
It should also be noted that for male sports superstars, rivalries are encouraged and so are actual feuds, complete with trash-talking and the like. Having watched the terrific documentary about the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, I can’t imagine the fan bases of Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas being as revved up about seeing their respective teams go head-to-head without the perceived animus between the two men stirring the pot.
Yet we hold female athletes to a different standard. The female athletes who scale the world of blue-chip advertising and reign supreme there for any length of time all seem to have a few qualities in common: decent athletic capability, but more importantly, they are cute, nonconfrontational and nonthreatening. In other words, they embody the American ideal of womanhood, or at least some Americans’ ideal of American womanhood. Women like Mary Lou Retton, Michelle Kwan and tennis great Chris Evert are terrific athletes, but it is arguable whether they are greater athletes than Serena Williams. But they are certainly less confrontational than she is, at least in public, and they are perceived as less threatening, too, fair or not.
While few advertisers will ever admit this publicly, much of this has nothing to do with behavior but with the fact that these women are petite and Williams is not, and she is black and they are not. For much of America, dark and statuesque will always scream less American and more threatening than tall, thin and blond — even if the tall, thin blonde is actually Russian — like Maria Sharapova.
Williams is a lot less Retton and a lot more Muhammad Ali or even Jack Johnson, two black athletes who, in their prime, made white Americans, and some blacks, uncomfortable. But both found redemption when their athletic careers were behind them and people recognized that by being unafraid and unapologetic, they were far more courageous sportsmen than those who played it safe.
Here’s hoping that Serena Williams finds her own measure of redemption sometime soon.
Keli Goff is The Root‘s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.