When you pose to newspaper readers, as did The Los Angeles Times earlier this week on a social media site, the question “Who is the real sportsperson of the year” – Serena Williams or a horse? — you just don’t get it.
The fact that a horse is not a person is merely one problem. The others are tied to a long history of disrespect of Black female figures.
The LA Times’ defenders can point out that it wasn’t the newspaper that initially posed the question. Seeking “the athlete or team whose performance that year embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement,” Sports Illustrated magazine conducted a reader poll featuring 12 candidates. The top vote-getter was Triple Crown winner American Pharoah with 278,824 votes. Williams placed 11th, with 5,520.
But the magazine’s editors selected Williams, whose performance this year was highlighted by winning 53 of 56 matches, including the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon titles. SI also noted Williams’ successes that year in entertainment, pop culture and fashion.
Some entities, like Horse Racing Nation and various readers, underscored how Pharoah was the first horse in 37 years to complete a Triple Crown victory and the Breeders’ Cup, expressed exasperation with the decision. So the LA Times took up the critics’ banner with its own poll, complete with the SI magazine cover photo of Serena — in her black leotard, matching pumps and seated on a golden throne — alongside a photo of the horse.
After a backlash from readers and social media, the newspaper changed its post. The headline later read, “Are fans right to be upset that Serena Williams beat American Pharoah for SI Sportsperson of the Year?” It tweeted, “We’ve changed the headline and photo on this story to treat it with greater sensitivity. Thank you for your feedback.”
The need for diversity in institutions that propose to speak for us is real. Editors at the Los Angeles Times would have paused before posing Maria Sharapova or Anna Kournikova next to a horse and with an inquiry into whether an animal is better.
Comparing a person to an animal is degrading. It’s not any more acceptable if the comparison is to a Black person. And it’s particularly offensive if it’s a woman. And it doesn’t help that this instance refers to Serena, who can win matches but can’t win the endorsements and mainstream adoration that follows other champions.
It’s not just Horse Racing Nation.
“I’ve had people look down on me, put me down because I didn’t look like them — I look stronger,” Williams said in her inspiring acceptance speech for the SI award. “I’ve had people look past me because [of] the color of my skin, I’ve had people overlook me because I was a woman, I’ve had critics say I [would] never win another Grand Slam when I was only at number seven — and here I stand today with 21 Grand Slam titles, and I’m still going.”
Williams was the third individual female and first Black woman to be named sportsperson of the year in the contests’ 61-year history. Once SI chose not to look dumb by calling a horse a “sportsperson,” perhaps others should have coalesced around another decision. If observers can’t give Serena her due, the media should at least grant her respect.
“I’m not standing here because I’ve just kind of cruised on,” Williams said. “I’ve had my share of ups and downs. I’ve had many struggles. I’ve had blood clots in both my lungs at the same time. I’ve lived through tragedies and controversies — and horses.”
She is, in fact, the best example of a winner.
Reprinted from the Phiiladelphia Tribune