Categorized | Women in Sports

The Anatomy of a Meltdown

Serena Williams was criticized for her outburst toward a referee. (Associated Press)

How male and female athletes are covered in print and on television


A bad call, an outburst, an argument with a referee, and all of a sudden an athlete’s career becomes defined by an episode of unruly behavior. “You can not be serious,” uttered at Wimbledon in 1981, was a pivotal moment in shaping John McEnroe’s bad-boy image. Just as “I swear to God I’m going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat, you hear that,” spewed at the U.S. Open in 2009, altered the public’s image of the occasionally temperamental Serena Williams.

But history has kindly, or at least neutrally, judged the so-called Superbrat’s behavior in England three decades ago. The tantrums were just “Johnny being Johnny.” McEnroe is a sought-after television commentator, has been the coach of the U.S. Davis Cup team, and has endorsed products for Heineken, American Express and IBM. Jack Nicholson reportedly once greeted him by saying, “Johnny Mac, don’t ever change.”

How Serena Williams’s behavior will end up shaping her image is yet to be seen—will her actions someday be remembered as “Serena being Serena?” Or will there be a harsher outcome, given the fact that American culture judges male and female athletes differently? Williams has gone over the lines drawn for “acceptable” behavior for women—from her physical appearance, her fashion sense, to her outspokenness—and it’s a constraint most male athletes don’t face. The language and narrative treatment of Williams’s rant at the U.S. Open, moreover, imply that she might not be remembered kindly, or even neutrally, in the future.


Serena Williams had a strong year in 2009, winning the singles titles at Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the WTA Sony Ericsson Championships, in addition to four doubles titles with her sister, Venus Williams. She breezed through the early rounds of the Women’s U.S. Open singles competition, not losing a set until her semifinal match against Kim Clijsters of Belgium.

Williams lost the first set to Clijsters, 6-4, and after the final point in the set, she threw her racket down—it bounced right back up, nearly hitting her in the face. Irritated, she again smashed the racket into the ground and broke it, receiving a warning for the transgression.

In the second set, Williams was losing 6-5, holding serve with the score at 30-15. Her first serve went wide left, and on the second serve she was called for a foot fault by line judge Shino Tsurubuchi: score 40-15. Williams turned and walked to the back of the court to get a ball for her next serve, but once she had the ball in her hand, she walked toward the line judge, and waving the ball she bellowed: “I swear to God I’m going to take this [expletive] ball and shove it down your [expletive] throat, you hear that?” She screamed several more profanity-laden comments at the judge.

Tsurubuchi jumped up and jogged to the umpire’s chair to report what Williams had said. After the line judge took her seat, Williams again approached within several feet of Tsurubuchi, this time berating the official while pointing at her with her racket. Tsurubuchi again went to the umpire, and at this point tournament referee Brian Early emerged to hear from Tsurubuchi and to speak with Williams. After Tsurubuchi spoke, Williams yelled “I didn’t say I would kill you, are you serious?” A moment later, Early ended the match by awarding a point penalty to Clijsters, who was waiting for play to resume.


The Reuters news organization makes its Handbook of Journalism available on the internet, and a number of items in the style guide refer to avoiding bias in reporting in general and the use of language in sports writing in particular.

For general news reporting, the Handbook states: “A Reuters journalist must be sensitive to unconscious stereotyping and dated assumptions. Is it really novel that the person in the news is black, blonde, female, overweight or gay? If it is relevant, does the fact belong in the lead or should it be woven in lower down?” Avoiding bias in any type of reporting, therefore, seems to be a goal of the organization.

In regard to writing about sports, the Handbook offers specific advice about how to cover different types of sporting competitions. In regard to tennis, it says: “Tennis is played in almost every country in the world and differs from many other sports covered by Reuters in that it is equally popular among women and men, both as spectators and participants. The women’s game is as high profile and almost as lucrative for top professionals as the men’s.” The organization, then, seemingly aspires to equalize the significance of men’s and women’s tennis.

The Handbook even gives its journalists advice on how the game should be covered:

“Tennis, with its money and glamour, produces good colour stories on and off court. Petty jealousies, temper tantrums, tensions over disputed line calls, new prodigies (women’s tennis in particular has produced some very young champions), upsets, unusual outfits (among men and women), accusations of racism are all good angles. As largely a solo sport, the psychological drama of a match is important – how players react to pressure.” Again, to avoid bias, the reporting of “unusual outfits” applies to both men and women, as do things like temper tantrums, presumably. Finally, the Handbook, as shown below, provides specific usage guidelines that cover some linguistic do’s and don’ts:

— girl/boy – Anyone over 18 is a man or woman.

— lady – Do not use, except in the title of teams at first reference e.g. Fulham Ladies football. Where organisers use the title “Ladies’ Championship” as at Wimbledon, substitute “women’s championship.”

— names – Always use first and surnames at first reference in results and copy. Surnames at second reference except for Thai names.

The language usage guidelines don’t include an entry for “men,” as in “men’s championship,” but in actual Reuters copy, it seems they try to avoid gender bias by letting the context of the article speak for itself. Articles mentioning Serena Williams’s Wimbledon victories refer to her as merely winning the “Wimbledon title,” which is the same treatment accorded to the men’s competition.

So how does Reuters do in practice? Despite the standards expressed in the Handbook of Journalism, the Reuters reporting of Serena Williams’s U.S. Open performance showed some gender bias, as in the following lead sentence: “Belgian comeback queen Kim Clijsters knocked out Serena Williams in a wildly controversial finish on Saturday to advance to the final of the U.S. Open and become the poster girl for working mothers.” The use of “comeback queen” adds little descriptiveness about Clijsters, and the use of “girl” runs counter to Reuters’ own Handbook.

And in another lead from a separate Reuters article: “‘All hell broke loose’ is how original bad boy of tennis John McEnroe described drama queen Serena Williams as she went kicking and screaming out of the U.S. Open on Saturday.” Serena Williams has described herself as a “drama queen” in the past, but she didn’t go out of the U.S. Open “kicking and screaming,” with its connotation of a child’s temper tantrum.

Pritha Sarkar, who wrote the Reuters article that referred to Williams as a “drama queen,” doesn’t believe her article contained gender bias. “Serena can be an ungracious loser, and her behavior was shocking,” Sarkar said. “We say what we see and feel, and in this case, I wrote what a lot of commentators were feeling about the episode.”


Sports Illustrated reporter Richard Deitsch wrote up the match for the weekly magazine. The headline of the article reflected the tenor for a lot of the media coverage in the days following the incident: “Serena’s Meltdown Ends Semifinal.” The headline alone contained language that framed the issue in terms considered derogatory to women: the first-name reference to Williams as “Serena,” and the idea that Williams had endured a “meltdown,” which according to Webster’s connotes a “breakdown of self-control.”

What’s wrong with referring to a female athlete by her first name? According to Dr. Karen Weiller, a specialist in elementary physical education, sociology of sport, and women in sport at the University of North Texas School of Education, there is a hierarchy inherently implied by calling women by their first names alone. “The use of hierarchy of naming infantilizes women and presumes a lesser status than male athletes,” Weiller writes.

The use of first names is widespread in the reporting of female athletes, so much so that it’s apparent only when seen in contrast to the reporting of men’s names. There are some male superstars who are commonly referred to by their first names—such as LeBron, Kobe and Tiger—but beyond a handful, the media almost always refers to male athletes by their last names. In tennis, the New York Times did not once call Roger Federer “Roger” in the headlines or its articles reporting his six Wimbledon championships—the newspaper calls him “Federer”—though to its credit, it most often uses both the first and last names of Serena Williams in headlines and refers to her as Williams in articles, except for those in which she plays along with or against her sister, Venus Williams.

Deitsch doesn’t like the use of first names for any athlete—he thinks it conveys too much familiarity with the subjects he covers—but he acknowledges it’s an issue in covering women’s tennis in particular: “There’s truth to that criticism. A lot of it is driven by the personality-driven nature of tennis and what the fans call the players. For some reason, fans call some of them by their first names, and the media falls into the habit, too.”

Referring to Williams’s tirade as a “meltdown” similarly confers a status on female athletes that is inferior to male athletes: that is, women are more prone to breaking down emotionally in competitive situations, while men’s outbursts are a natural outgrowth of their dominating characters.

Deitsch didn’t write the headline, but he defends the use of “meltdown” in describing Williams. “She lost her cool at a key point in the match,” Deitsch said. “This was a true meltdown, going off on the line judge and not being able to control herself. In a case like this, I would have used the same language for a guy.”

Cultural anthropologist Dr. Sherry Ortner wrote about the idea that it’s natural for men to display their temperament in her 1974 article, “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” Ortner argued that within society at large, women’s roles are largely defined by their physical makeup, that is, childbearing keeps them tied to “nature,” whereas men’s roles are associated with their ability to dominate their surroundings and instill “culture” on the natural world. Men can drive the transformation of their world, in other words, while women assume a subordinated position and settle for accepting the natural order.

Click here to read more about gender bias in televised women’s sports (PDF)

The notion of male control of their environment is borne out by an article in Sports Illustrated back in 1981 regarding McEnroe’s victory at Wimbledon: “His Earth, His Realm, His England.” The subtitle reads: “John McEnroe drew censure—but also gained admiration—as he stopped Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon.” McEnroe’s wild behavior was viewed as an extension of his character, and in expressing himself so vociferously, the article actually claimed he was helping loosen up the rigidity of the Wimbledon tournament.

So what does this have to do with Serena Williams protesting a judge’s call? At the U.S. Open, Williams transcended the female stereotype of women as passive, docile, even fragile creatures; she attempted to break into the male domain of controlling their surroundings by trying to enforce some control over a frightened line judge.

In Deitsch’s write-up in Sports Illustrated, he wrote about the lack of “calm” surrounding the episode. He interviewed Williams’s mother, Oracene, and described the scene thusly: “Oracene Williams said she did not see the foot fault. She was sitting on the opposite side of the court in the players’ box with her daughters (including Venus Williams) and other members of the Williams family. She said she had never seen such a finish involving her daughter but did offer some perspective. ‘She should have kept calm,’ Oracene said of Serena.”

In contrast, in 1978, after 19-year-old John McEnroe had offended most of Europe with his antics, Sports Illustrated ran a piece on his behavior problems, including a quote from his father, John P. McEnroe Sr., who said: “The faces and the stomping were always there. We told him. But nobody should try and change him. The faces are—part of him.” Of course, that buttressed the Johnny-being-Johnny narrative, by justifying his tantrums as a forgivable character flaw.


In 2009, Serena Williams was named the women’s Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. In its own write-up of the award, AP said: “Clearly, Williams’ most infamous on-court episode—a tirade directed at a line judge after a foot-fault call near the end of her U.S. Open semifinal loss in September—didn’t hurt her standing in the eyes of the voters.”

The AP went on to quote Williams as saying, “People realize that I’m a great player, and one moment doesn’t define a person’s career.” That was true for at least one other AP Athlete of the Year—John McEnroe—who won it in 1981, the year he also blew up at Wimbledon.

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