Serena Williams on Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year cover
Sports Illustrated

So. Sports Illustrated named Serena Williams its 2015 Sportsperson of the Year, the first time an individual woman has won the award in more than 30 years.

In a lengthy essay, the publication lauded Williams’ remarkable professional accomplishments, then got to the more important reasons why Williams was chosen: “Because Williams kept pushing herself to grow, to be better, and tennis was the least of it. The trying is what’s impressive. The trying is why we are here.”

With her stats, endurance, ambition and triumphs over adversity, there really shouldn’t be much of an argument about SI’s selection. But this is Serena Williams, and while she doesn’t necessarily court controversy, everything about her always seems to be controversial, from the size of her ass to the strength of her arms to her on-court attire to her “attitude” to the way she celebrates her wins to … oh, surely you get the drift by now. Just pick any topic regarding Williams and you’ll find reams of (unnecessary and offensive) think pieces about it.

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This time around is no different. There are three main criticisms of Williams’ cover. The most bizarre one comes from some people who actually think that Williams robbed a horse—a horse—of the honor of being SI’s Sportsperson of the Year. In an online poll conducted by SI, readers chose American Pharoah, aka the horse that won the first Triple Crown in 37 years, to be on the cover, with 278,824 votes versus Williams’ 5,520 votes. To make matters worse, the Los Angeles Times sent out a tweet linked to a story that seemed to compare the star athlete to … a horse. (The paper later changed the headline and photo after getting dragged on Twitter.)

Look, I like horses as much as the next person, and I’m happy for the horse’s success and all that. While this seems silly to have to point out, it seems that some people need a reminder: Horses are animals, not people. SI has never selected an animal of any kind as its sportsperson of the year. So why should it start now? Would we even be having this (stupid) debate/discussion about whether a horse was a more deserving winner if the sportsperson were anyone other than a black woman? This whole argument screams racism.

At least the argument about the size of Williams’ thighs in the cover image has some merit. They do appear significantly smaller than what we’re accustomed to seeing, so unless Williams went on a master cleanse in preparation for her cover shoot, it’s a reasonable assumption that SI Franken-shopped her thighs. It’s rare that any professionally published image isn’t subject to tweaking these days, so the fact that Williams’ image may have been altered isn’t the issue as much as the amount it may have been tweaked.

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There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Williams’ thick thighs (they save lives, I hear), and if super sexy was what the cover was going for (duh), then SI should have left Williams’ as they were. I mean, if you’re going to sell sex, then just sell sex unabashedly.

Finally, there are some folks, like Rick Morrissey over at the Chicago Sun-Times, who have an issue with Williams’ pose and attire—or lack of it—on the cover. She looks “like she wants one thing, and it’s not a chat with the line judge,” Morrissey wrote. “[The image] in no way helps the cause of women looking to be recognized for their athletic abilities.”

I’m unclear why there’s a burden being placed on Williams to further a “cause.” Why can’t she just pose the way she feels like posing? For what it’s worth, SI tweeted that the cover pose was Williams’ vision: “The cover? Serena’s idea, intended to express her own ideal of femininity, strength & power.” OK.

Sexuality and sensuality aren’t the only things in the arsenal of power, but they are in there. Why is it bad for a woman to acknowledge and display them, especially a woman who has spent the better part of the last 15 years consistently demonstrating more “respectable” traits like skill, endurance, discipline and business acumen? Is she not also allowed to be sexy if and when she feels like it?

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Before anyone else goes off the deep end about Williams’ in-your-face sexuality, let’s take a moment to put this cover in context. This year, Williams has been publicly derided, both by online trolls as looking like a man and by the New York Times as not looking feminine enough. Is it any real surprise that she used the SI cover to clap back at her critics, making a declarative statement about her femininity?

Before we continue to argue about this cover, can we take a moment to acknowledge that Williams was in a damned-if-she-did, damned-if-she-didn’t position? She was going to be overly criticized, and the cover was going to be hyperdeconstructed, whether she’d shown up on the cover dressed like Ayesha Curry or Amber Rose. Controversy is just the (high) price of being Serena Williams. So she might as well have worn whatever or posed however she wanted. She knows by now that she can’t please the public; the least she can do is please herself. I hope she’s happy.

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Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.