Serena WilliamsImage by sufw via Flickr

Some people say you know you’re getting older when you no longer understand the young people. Though I’m only ten years older than Serena Williams, I’m at a loss for her actions during Saturday’s semi-finals of the 2009 US Open. She displayed extreme unsportsmanlike behaviour. On top of that, she was incredibly rude and proved to be one of the things I hate the most, a bully: It’s just a bit too easy to take out your frustrations on somebody who isn’t allowed to talk back or do anything about your threats. That line judge is not allowed to do anything but stay quiet and run to the umpire to tell what happened and Serena full well knew it.
Imagine her cussing like that to a street thug in the bad part of town. Wait, you can’t because she wouldn’t do that. She’d know full well he’d not just sit there and take it like the line judge did. Like I said, a bully.

Since this happened, I’ve heard all sorts of arguments to defend Serena’s actions:
• It wasn’t a foot fault.
• Even if it was, calling one at match point in a semi-final is simply not done.
• The line judge is a racist.
• The Williams sisters are systematically boycotted by judges and umpires.

Now all of the above may be true but here’s what happened:
She threatened and cussed out the line judge like a sailor who just got told he can’t get shore leave after six months on ship.

Regardless of any mitigating circumstances (I know about what happened with her and Capriati) she crossed the line with her threats and verbal tirade. In any sporting event, you accept that there are referees and rules. If you have half a brain, you know that bad calls and decisions will happen. Sometimes they’re in your favour, other times not but they a part of the game. Go to any karate tournament or watch a boxing match and you’ll see truckloads of bad decisions by the referees. I’ve had my share too:
• In the first tournament I entered, I got to the finals and lost on points. Turned out the referee was my opponent’s coach. That probably explained why he got away with kneeing me in the groin with such enthusiasm.
• At the European cup in Moskou, I spent several minutes waiting for a decision by the judges after the last round. I won that one. But later I heard the officials were trying everything in their power to have me lose as my opponent was Russian and the world champion at that time.
• At the world championships the year after, that same Russian did an illegal armbar right in front of the judges and referee. They didn’t even give him a warning. I lost that fight; not because of the armbar but I still lost.

In all of these incidents, I kept my mouth shut and didn’t throw a temper tantrum at the judges. Simply because doing so would have had consequences. First of all, I’d have been disqualified. In almost all of the current martial arts competitions, you get penalized for just talking to the referee. I’ve yet to see a fighter cuss at the referee or judges like that but he’d get tossed out of the tournament in a heartbeat.
But more importantly, that’s not how a competitor and martial artist act. We’re supposed to display self control and good judgement. You disagree with a call? Go lodge a complaint via the established protocols. That’s what they’re there for.

Now before you get the wrong idea, martial artists are only human like everybody else. I’ve lost my temper with people before, sometimes in the worst way, and will probably make even more mistakes in the future. We’re all nothing but ordinary sinners in that regard. But I’ve always respected the judges, referees and my opponents in the ring and I teach my students the same thing:
• They have to salute their opponents, regardless of the outcome of the fight.
• The same goes for saluting the judges and referee.
• They don’t get to act like arrogant, show-off prima donnas. If they do anyway, they get one warning. Second offense means they get booted from my school.

A competition is a test of skill and will. It should be a celebration of the human spirit and a showcase of what our bodies are capable of with hard training. In martial arts, these competitions take on an extra dimension as your techniques can cause permanent injury or even death to your opponent. The only thing that differentiates you from a common thug is your behaviour and fair play. This is even more important if you make a living in the ring, the cage or on the mat.

What Serena Williams seems to have forgotten is that as a professional athlete, you’re in a privileged position: you get paid to do what you love most. In her case, the monetary rewards are astronomical. Perhaps her sportsmanship should then be at the same level.

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About Wim Demeere

Wim Demeere started his training in the martial arts at age 14 with the study of judo and ju jitsu. After a short while he switched to a traditional Chinese style called Hung Chia Pai… (more)

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