The electric talent Sloane Stephens, a player just now coming into her own after having her career nearly wrecked by injuries, won the US Open women’s tournament last week. But let’s not kid ourselves: The real winner of this year’s tournament was Serena Williams.
More specifically, Williams’ Instagram. From the shots of her baby shower to her glorious pregnant belly and finally an adorable shot of mother and child dozing together, Williams owned the Open. The only tennis
story bigger this entire year was a seven-months-pregnant Williams smashing backhands in a video posted during Wimbledon.
(Pity her poor sister, Venus: She couldn’t even enjoy her own run to the Wimbledon
finals without having announcers tell us how inspired she must be by Serena’s impending motherhood.)
Surely, this is a step forward from years past, when female athletes had to end their careers for childbirth or were discouraged from playing when pregnant. Motherhood is now even part of female athletes’ heart-warming hero narratives, like Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport in tennis, and the married WNBA players DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, who are raising twin daughters together despite being on different teams.
In this area — the recognition of a full life off the playing field, the acceptance that our athletes don’t materialise out of thin air when they step on the field — male athletes fall short of their female counterparts. They remain stat-generating robots who exist solely to make our teams win: Their off-field lives aren’t just irrelevant to us, they’re annoying distractions from what really matters.
Colin Kaepernick’s protest and subsequent blackballing by the NFL is the most high-profile example. But our insistence that male athletes keep their lives to themselves isn’t limited to their political views. Every time a male athlete takes a few days off for the birth of his child, he’s inevitably showered with “Where are his priorities?” complaints from fans and sports columnists. (“If they choose not to plan their nine-month family expansion activities to coincide with the eight months per year when their work activities don’t entail playing games that count, why should their teams suffer the consequences?” Mike Florio at NCB wrote, succinctly summing up the mind-set in 2012.)
Players who have taken time off to deal with mental health problems are seen as weak or somehow not “focused” enough to overcome them. “To show weakness, we’re told in sports, is to deserve shame,” the former tennis
star Mardy Fish, who withdrew from a 2012 US Open match against Roger Federer because of anxiety, told USA Today.
Emotional states in male athletes can even be mostly ignored or given more “comfortable” explanations. Stephen Piscotty, a right fielder for my beloved St Louis Cardinals, has had a disappointing year at the plate. A logical reason for this might be that early in the season his mother was told she had ALS. But Piscotty’s struggles have not been attributed to that. Instead, “his timing is off” or “he’s just having one of those years” is the preferred nomenclature.
©2017 The New York Times News Service