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Opinion //

Villainy in sport: the deviance of “The Other” in New York

Why is it that the misbehaviour of certain sports stars goes unnoticed by the media and fans?

The US Open tennis tournament has become a breeding ground for controversy over recent years.

One of the most well-publicised tennis controversies in recent memory involved the 2018 Women’s Final where Serena Williams was widely criticised by worldwide press for labelling umpire Carlos Ramos as a “thief”.

Incidents like this have prompted crowds to make a habit of booing players. Before the “thief” incident, it was Nick Kyrgios. Then it hit the 2018 women’s final featuring Williams and Japan’s Naomi Osaka. This year saw Serbian Novak Djokovic retire injured to a chorus of booing as well as the well-publicised booing of rising star Daniil Medvedev after most of his matches.

Most players ignored it, a few of them criticised it. Medvedev’s reaction was by far the most antagonistic: the 23-year-old gave the finger to the crowd, gestured to them on every occasion imaginable and provided fans and detractors alike with the quote of the tournament:“Thank you all, guys, because your energy tonight gave me the win. If you weren’t here, I probably would lose the match … I want all of you to know, when you sleep tonight, I won because of you.”

The extent to which crowds’ scorn is the fault of the player in question is widely discussed by the worldwide sporting commentaria. Opinions differ and are often controversial.

One incident that was given significantly less attention was the gesture of American doubles tennis icon Mike Bryan, who turned his racquet towards the umpire and mimicked a gunshot after a dodgy line call in September this year.

I think it is beyond question that this gesture is extremely problematic. However, there was no booing. The press barely took notice. The fine was minimal. The video of the gesture garnered very minimal attention on Twitter. And this is for one half of the most successful doubles team of all time. What does this say?

Even if, for the sake of argument, the actions of Kyrgios, Medvedev, Williams, and Bryan are assumed to be equally serious, how can their actions warrant such differing reactions? The simple answer is that they shouldn’t. But they do. A binary response is often perpetuated on social media with phrases such as “they’re flogs” or “it’s un-Australian” being thrown all over the place. When considering these questions, it is important to give them the attention and nuance they deserve otherwise we run the risk of affirming what is often textbook discrimination. 

Stereotypes are fundamental in this consideration. Stereotypes often signify something much greater than what may be seen at first glance and, when exposed by media, perpetuate discriminatory discourse in mainstream discussion.

A prime example of this was a cartoon of Serena Williams published in The Herald by Mark Knight after the US Open final. The cartoon deliberately invoked the trope of the “angry Black woman” through its depiction of Williams throwing a tantrum with Osaka portrayed as insignificant, bordering on subservient in the background. Knight denied that this cartoon was racially motivated and claimed he “drew her as she was.” Accepting these exaggerated stereotypes as the norm only reinforces the cartoonist’s view that her behaviour was so abnormal or “deviant.”

The notion of deviance is an interesting one. If we consider the example of Nick Kyrgios, one of his oft-posed criticisms is that his behaviour is “un-Australian”. If we consider this from the perspective of his “deviance” away from the norm, this is an interesting concept.

Kyrgios is unashamedly brash, but there are plenty of other sports stars known for being brash, such as former grand-slam champion, Lleyton Hewitt. Strong parallels have been drawn between Hewitt and Kyrgios’ personas as young tennis players. Hewitt was known for frequently swearing at competitors and umpires, having also received heavy backlash for apparent racial slurs towards opponent James Blake. However, the obvious difference is Hewitt is white whereas Kyrgios is of Greek-Malaysian descent.

But how does this relate to deviance? Taking the archetype of the “straight white male” as the norm, it seems that only one level of deviance can be tolerated before controversy and discriminatory discourse ensues. This explains a few things. Not only does it explain why Kyrgios (with his two levels of clear deviance being his unashamed boldness and his ethnicity) and Serena Williams (with her two levels of “deviance” being her race and gender) have been “othered” in stadiums and media worldwide, it also explains the depiction of Osaka as submissive. In order to realign Osaka as the “hero” in the public’s eyes, the cartoonist needed to subvert the perceived “deviance” of her race and gender with a defined timidness to render her more “palatable.” This shows that this is not only problematic when considering your traditional “villains” such as Kyrgios and Williams but also in the stereotypes used to portray the “hero” which can be equally problematic for conceptions of race and gender in society.

Medvedev is an example of how this can manifest in real life where nationality can also act as an axis of deviance. As an Eastern-European who was also unashamedly brash and antagonistic in his views, he was booed by the crowd for his disregard for their authority (his “deviance”). But Mike Bryan was not the “deviant” villain for the crowd because he embodied the norm for them. He was not The Other. The perceived level of deviance was not strong enough to manifest. Of course, talking about deviance in these “levels” is also simplistic. At a fundamental level, it is based on perception. 

But as Waleed Aly noted during the Adam Goodes saga, the world of sport is generally very tolerant of minorities “until they demonstrate that they do not know their place.” The question we need to ask is whether deviance from the norm is truly villainous or is there something more insidious under the surface?

Note: an abridged version of this article appeared in print.