Earlier this week Sports Illustrated magazine announced that they had selected tennis star Serena Williams to be their Sportsperson of the Year. The SOY award is given to “the athlete or team whose performance that year most embodies the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement.” As a dad with five daughters, I was really pleased to hear the news the SI had finally chosen another female athlete as this award has been dominated by men since the award’s inception in 1954. Serena Williams’s selection was only the third time that a woman had been selected for the prestigious award without sharing it with a man. Chris Evert won it alone in 1976 and Mary Decker in 1983, several have women “shared” it with a man, and the U.S. Women’s Soccer team won it as a team in 1999. The name of the award even changed this year to be more inclusive of women. All said, it’s a pretty big deal for her to win this award. It was a topic of conversation on sports talk radio shows and was all over the internet. As a sports fan myself I would be the first to admit that I don’t follow tennis much at all. Sure, I know who the Williams sister are and knew that Serena had nearly won the Grand Slam in 2015 but fell short in the U.S. Open in September. I also knew that Serena and her sister, Venus, have been surrounded by controversy over their long careers but that they have overcome so much adversity because they’re strong, athletic and outspoken individuals who happen to also be black in a very white sport. Yet, I didn’t really know that much about either of them because, quite frankly, I didn’t really care. I don’t really watch much tennis and it’s barely on my sports radar. After hearing the few minutes of talk on the radio I was actually looking forward to reading more about Serena Williams and sharing her story with my daughters once my copy of SI arrived. My copy arrived on Wednesday and I was beyond disappointed the moment I pulled it out of my mailbox and glanced at the cover.
Serena Williams graces the cover of SI sitting on a throne-like chair, wearing a lacy bodysuit, sheer stockings and heels, while staring directly into the camera. It’s a look that one might expect on the cover of the annual SI Swimsuit magazine or Cosmo. I get it that she has strong and sexy legs. But what does that have to do with this award? What hit me the moment that I saw the cover was how the cover was the ultimate disrespect to her as an individual and to women as a gender. Why does she have to be sexy? I want my daughters to be strong, smart, confident and compassionate people. Their value as women is not at all dependent on their sex appeal. And, just as much, I want my son to respect all women because of who they are as human beings not because of their looks. Yet, this photo pretty much reduces Serena to being a sex symbol, posing provocatively on the cover under the proclamation Sportsperson of the Year. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would have looked for any of the previous 61 years’ worth of winners to have had a similar cover photo? The thought of Brett Favre or Tom Brady or Tiger Woods sitting on a chair trying to look all sexy like Serena makes me laugh and cringe at the same time. In all of the years of this award the cover has never ever been so disrespectful. Check out the screen captures of all of the previous covers from SI’s website.
Do you notice how nearly every single previous cover was of the athletes either in their sport’s uniform or a head shot? Again, I ask, Why does Serena have to be sexy? Why couldn’t the SI cover have been an action shot of Serena from one of her matches? Or a pose of her in one of her tennis outfits? Or a head shot? The article itself is a compelling because it goes into great detail to explain why Serena Williams is and was such a deserving recipient of this award. S.L. Price really educated me (and, I’m sure, countless others) about what a wonderful person Serena is and how much she has changed and matured over the course of her prolific career. I’m now a Serena Williams fan because of what she has done with her talents off the court more than here amazing success on it.
Indeed, in 2015 Williams hit this rare sweet spot, a pinch-me patch where the exotic became the norm. She danced with Donald Trump on New Year’s Eve. She spent a night telling bedtime stories to the children of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Growing up, Williams had devoured every Harry Potter book, marveled at the business empires of Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart. Now J.K. Rowling was tweeting against a critic of Williams’s body, now Oprah was hustling to watch her at the U.S. Open, now Stewart was calling Williams “the most powerful woman I know.” President Barack Obama, the most scrutinized man alive, told her how great it was to watch her.
[In 2015]…Williams, 34, won three major titles, went 53–3 and provided at least one new measure of her tyrannical three-year reign at No. 1. For six weeks this summer—and for the first time in the 40-year history of the WTA rankings—Williams amassed twice as many ranking points as the world No. 2; at one point that gap grew larger than the one between No. 2 and No. 1,000. Williams’s 21 career Grand Slam singles titles are just one short of Steffi Graf’s Open-era record. Such numbers are reason enough for Sports Illustrated to name Serena Williams its 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.
I would encourage you to follow the link above (or click here) to read the entire article about Serena Williams. It’s lengthy but worth the time to begin to understand and appreciate her as a person and as a celebrity who has truly embraced her power and celebrity status to help others in real and meaningful ways. Like all of us, she has her faults (tennis pun fully intended!), but in overcoming them, it also shows her determination to make herself better; to right some of the the wrongs of her past. She is a remarkable person and a role model for young women like my daughters. Serena Williams is such a worthy recipient of the 2015 SI Sportsman of the Year award because of her many accomplishments on and off the tennis court. I only wish I wasn’t left with one nagging question, though. Why does she have to be sexy?