There’s been a lot of fury around the comments John McEnroe made about Serena Williams during his interview on NPR last Sunday. But um . . . have you actually listened to it?
Well, I did, and while I’d never claim to be a tennis expert (nor a die-hard McEnroe fan for that matter), I have some serious concerns with the way this whole thing has since played out.
First off, I thought it abundantly clear that John McEnroe has nothing but respect for Serena Williams. Not only does he say that outright later in the interview, his earlier comments clearly illustrate his reverence. When Lulu Garcia-Navarro, the reporter conducting the interview, quotes McEnroe as saying “Serena Williams is the best female player in the world” he instantly corrects her and says she’s the “best female player ever. No question.” He doesn’t merely expand her value over a geography, he proclaims her dominance in the game over the entire time since its inception.
When he’s then asked why the need for qualification, suggesting she might be the best tennis player of all time regardless of gender, he expresses genuine surprise. Without any air of superiority, his assertion is simply that it comes down to athleticism in sports. It’s physicality. In any physical sport, he asks, is the BEST player ever a woman?
After further consideration, I personally think this is a valid, or at least an interesting, point. There’s no doubt Serena Williams is a remarkably talented – and physical – woman. More so than most women. Realistically, more so than most men. But more so than the BEST man? The best – and by default of what’s required in the game today – the most strategic, determined, and athletic male tennis player? That’s primarily what McEnroe was asking and I don’t necessarily think it’s an unfair question.
On average, men are more physical than women. They are typically taller, stronger, and faster – that’s not sexism, that’s just biology. Now again, those are just the averages. Serena Williams is in a class far above the average man and woman and the average male and female athlete. But if the question is, is the most physically dominant female athlete going to best the most physically dominant male athlete – well, I think that’s a fair and interesting conversation.
Now it’s worth noting that I think Mr. McEnroe’s estimate that Serena would fall around 700th in the men’s tennis rankings is outright ridiculous. I’m not a tennis pro and frankly, know very little about the sport, but I think Serena has proven herself to be an exceptionally unique athlete and regardless of gender, the words ‘exceptional’ and ‘unique’ do not apply to athletes ranked 700th. But that’s his guess and he’s certainly entitled to it.
My biggest frustration with this whole fiasco is how the follow-on journalists have subsequently badgered McEnroe to apologize for his comments. Again, comments that he made out of his own opinion and experience, without looking to be provocative or sensational in any way, and with total respect for Serena Williams and all that she has accomplished. The critics were not asking him to further explain his thoughts, or enter a friendly debate or try and understand his perspective. They asked – and to some extent – demanded him to apologize. And when he refused? Well, then . . . they vilified him for that, too!
To me, this is a perfect illustration of the lack of progress we’ve made when it comes to discussions over gender differences. Because we’re basically saying we won’t allow for any ‘discussion’ at all. In the aftermath of the interview, so many women (and some men) jumped all over McEnroe for his ‘sexist’ comments. What could have become a really interesting conversation on the value of perseverance, athleticism, mental strength v. physical prowess, etc. – instead has resulted in a huge onslaught and backlash against a respected peer for his honest assessment.
If we ostracize a person – any person for that matter, but especially someone with some experience on the subject – for their thoughts, we are shutting down any hope of a meaningful discussion before it even has a chance to get started. We can do better, people. We must. If we have any chance of opening people’s eyes to new possibilities or changing perceptions, we have to be willing to allow alternative points of view, regardless of how unpopular they may be. That’s what it means to start Expanding the Conversation.
And just for the record, if they ever were able to arrange a match between Williams and McEnroe in the future, I’d take Serena any day of the week 😉