It’s not everyday that you see athletes, at the top of their game, speak out about issues of racism and injustice in this country. With endorsement deals, the court of public opinion and the threat of being disliked or even banned from certain circles of influence, it can be a risk. But Serena Williams is not your average athlete. Not only is she a champion on the tennis courts, she exercises that same spirit in the personal decisions she makes that just might impact her career.
But Serena Williams has proved a very important point. That speaking up for what you know is right and just, doesn’t have to be detrimental to your career. Not only was Williams a force to be reckoned with on the court, she received $74 million in prize money and another $13 million in endorsements. And today, Sports Illustrated named her Sportsperson of the Year, a very well-deserved title.
The comment section over at Sports Illustrated is already erupting with debate about whether or not the honor should have been bestowed upon Williams but as SI puts it,
“Williams, 34, won three major titles, went 53–3 and provided at least one new measure of her tyrannical three-year reign at No. 1. For six weeks this summer—and for the first time in the 40-year history of the WTA rankings—Williams amassed twice as many ranking points as the world No. 2; at one point that gap grew larger than the one between No. 2 and No. 1,000. Williams’s 21 career Grand Slam singles titles are just one short of Steffi Graf’s Open-era record. Such numbers are reason enough for Sports Illustrated to name Serena Williams its 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.”
But as a Black woman concerned with the lives and plight of Black people in this country and aboard, her accomplishments become even more impressive when you consider Williams’ activism. And yes, speaking out in such a position of power and influence is indeed activism. You may also remember both Williams sisters boycotted the Hilton Head tournament in South Carolina back in 2000, because the state refused to remove the Confederate flag from the state capitol building.
Even in the arena of elite athletes, Williams has experienced racism.
At the Indian Wells tour stop, in 2001 when Serena was just 19-years-old, Williams received vicious boos. Her father Richard Williams and sister Venus, claimed they heard racial slurs. SI reports:
“Boos changed to cheers whenever she double-faulted or made an error, but they returned when she beat Clijsters and grew thunderous when she left the court to hug her sister and dad. She would write in her 2009 autobiography, On the Line, that she, too, “heard the word, nigger, a couple times.”
No outside source confirmed hearing such language. Nor did anyone from the tournament make any mollifying announcement. “No one said anything,” Oracene says. “They were just letting it go on, almost like, She deserved this.”
“As a family we were all hurt,” says Isha. “It stayed with us a long time. Our parents have always been very clear about who we are in terms of the country, but to have evidence of that? It was a disillusionment, the end of any innocence that we had about the world we lived in.”
Williams rode the two hours home in tears and she begged her parents not to make her play the Indian Wells tournament again.
But after 13 years and seeing a Nelson Mandela film, Williams was beginning to change her mind. She almost played in 2014 but consulted her family first about a return in 2015. She wrote three drafts of a Time essay. She took one to her father and choked up trying to read it aloud. She just handed it over for him to read.
Though Richard and Venus were not ready to return to Indian Wells, her father told her it would be a mistake not to return.
Her mother, Oracene said, “I wouldn’t have gone back. Not because I didn’t forgive them-because of my own integrity. If they didn’t think I deserve to be there? Then I don’t need to be there.”
As for Serena herself, the decision was spiritual.
“I was brought up to forgive people and I felt that I wasn’t doing what I was taught.”
Her mother, who says she’s seen growth in her daughter, said this was a big step for her.
“To learn to forgive: She has a problem with that. It’s a big step for her. Because she’s the kind of person who would get revenge on you– and it was never going to end.”
There was also another factor.
On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown was shot six times and killed by officer Darren Wilson. Then his body lay in the street for four hours. Then in November of that year, the grand jury voted not to indict Wilson.
Williams tweeted: “Shameful. What will it take???”
Brown’s age meant something to her.
“I had been a teenager at Indian Wells, and that was hard for me to go through—especially when I was thinking, It’s 2001, I [shouldn’t] have to deal with that stuff as much anymore,” she says. “Now fast-forward to 2015, and we still have young black men being killed. Someone needed to do something. And I thought then that there was something greater than me and tennis. I needed to go back there and speak out against racism.”
In her early 20’s she described an incident where a gas station clerk refused to touch her.
“He didn’t want to touch my hand. He told me to put the money down. I found it fascinating that it’s 2000-something and this guy had that attitude toward a black person. I wanted to do things, like, touch this or that, just to see what his reaction would be. I’m almost glad I had that experience, so I can understand more what people have to go through.”
Then in 2006, when she traveled to Ghana and toured the country’s slave castles, inequality and racism became even harder to ignore. Since then, she’s visited the continent often. She financed two high schools in rural Kenya, in an area where many girls drop out by 14-years-old to marry. Williams insisted that the enrollment be at least 40 percent. Of the 442 students, 54 percent are girls.
After viewing a TED Talk by Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative- a Alabama legal organization that provides representation for prisoners, mostly Black and poor, who have been wrongfully convicted– Williams decided to coincide her return to Indian Wells with her partnership with EJI. No prominent athlete had ever endorsed them before. Offering up a hitting session, a souvenir racket and court side tickets to her first match, Williams raised $100,000 for the organization. The publicity generated another $100,000 in contributions.
Stevenson naturally praised Williams for her involvement.
“It’s been huge. It’s so rare when athletes at the top of their game are willing to embrace a set of issues that, for a lot of people, are edgier. This is not aid to orphans. These are questions of racial bias and discrimination, mass incarceration, excessive punishment, abuse of the mentally ill. You don’t change the world by doing what’s comfortable or convenient. You have to be willing to do uncomfortable things. In a small way, Serena’s return to Indian Wells represented that. But associating herself with an organization like ours was more significant: She was standing when a lot of her contemporaries remain seated, speaking up when others are being quiet. That’s an act of hope and an act of courage, but it’s also an act of change.”
And though Williams thought she was fully prepared to return to Indian Wells, as the date approached, she was anything but ready. Two days before she was set to play, she had a panic attack in her bedroom. Serena thought, “I do not want to go there. What if it’s horrible? What if they boo again? How can I get out of this?”
Her sister Isha was all for her retracting her offer. She didn’t want her sister vulnerable and exposed.
Eventually, she pulled herself together and attended with her sisters Isha and Lyndrea and her mother Oracene.
She arrived to a standing ovation.
At first Oracene was wary, wondering, Why are they being so nice? But Serena’s turn to conciliation made her mother take stock. “She needed that, and I learned that I need a bit of that, too,” Oracene says. Isha started crying. When Serena pulled off her headphones before the warmup and heard the cheers, she cried too.
Serena talked about the moment being an iconic one in her career.
“Everyone always asked, ‘What was your greatest moment in tennis?’ and I always said it hasn’t happened,” Serena says. “But I think it has happened now, and that was going back to Indian Wells and playing. It released a lot of feelings that I didn’t even know I had. I was really surprised at how emotional I got—and how relieved I felt after everything was said and done.”
But we all read the headlines. We know the racist incidents didn’t stop after Serena returned to Indian Wells. Many unarmed Black men were killed at the hands of police. Then nine Black people attending Bible study were shot and killed in a Charleston, South Carolina church.
In September, she enrolled in an online history of civil rights class at the University of Massachusetts.
“I was disappointed in how little I knew compared to how much I thought I knew.”
Like many of us, Williams’ parents, who are old enough to remember the country, in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle, tried to warn their daughters of the racial changes they’d face. Their mother, Oracene told them that they would never be fully accepted by Whites. The Williams sisters bristled.
“They used to say, ‘You’re racist!’ ” Oracene says. “And I’d say, ‘I’m not. I just want you to be aware.’
In October, Williams guest-edited Wired magazine. In her piece, she wrote: “To those of you involved in equality movements like Black Lives Matter,” she wrote, “I say this: Keep it up. Don’t let those trolls stop you.”
In a question and answer session at the University of Pennsylvania, Williams told students she was inspired by the examples set by Black activists in the ’60’s.
“I’ve been a little more vocal,” Williams said, “but I want to do more. I want to help everyone to see the so-called light. But there are a lot of other athletes, actors, politicians who are speaking out—of all colors, by the way. They’re not sitting back. They’re calling for justice straight away. It makes me look at myself and say, like, What am I doing? I have a platform. I can speak out, too. If one person hears me, maybe that person can speak out and help. I embrace that. I’m willing and happy to be part of this new movement.”
You can read Williams’ full interview over at Sports Illustrated now.