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He Said, Serena Said

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Steubenville, Sharapova, and Giving an Apology

Commentary from Jake Kring-Schreifels, giving you a closer look at the controversy surrounding Serena Williams

Over the past week, Serena Williams, instead of mentally preparing for Wimbledon, has been embroiled in controversy, apologizing privately and publicly on two separate occasions. The first, and seemingly ongoing apology was directed towards the Steubenville rape victim and her family and the second towards Maria Sharapova. Her inflammatory comments, while contextually very different, stemmed from the same Rolling Stone article that surfaced earlier last week by writer Stephen Rodrick. In lucid form, the article highlights Rodrick’s day spent with Serena back in March, idly recording their conversations in the car, gym, and nail salon. To catch you up, here’s a general timeline of how the controversy broke down the last week.

I think it’s important to begin with CNN’s heavily criticized coverage of the Steubenville rape case back in March when the first verdict was reached and two 16-year-olds, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond, were convicted guilty in Ohio court for raping a girl in which heavy amounts of alcohol were involved. The case earned national publicity by the way social media had supplied pictures and evidence against the two teenagers, led by hacking groups affiliated with “Anonymous.”  CNN and contributor Poppy Harlow received flak over her presentation of the case as seemingly being an apologist for the two boys guilty, citing that their promising academic and football careers had all but ended. 

This was near the time Stephen Rodrick was following around Serena Williams, and subsequently and spontaneously found a gold mine of regrettable sound.

From Rolling Stone:

“We watch the news for a while, and the infamous Steubenville rape case flashes on the TV – two high school football players raped a drunk 16-year-old, while other students watched and texted details of the crime. Serena just shakes her head. “Do you think it was fair, what they got? They did something stupid, but I don’t know. I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember? It could have been much worse. She’s lucky. Obviously, I don’t know, maybe she wasn’t a virgin, but she shouldn’t have put herself in that position, unless they slipped her something, then that’s different.”

Regardless of when the magazine article would be published, these comments wouldn’t, and don’t, sit well with many people. ‘SERENA SAYS RAPE VICTIM INFLICTED IT UPON HERSELF’ is the kind of de-contextualized tabloid headline that prompts an apology. In fact, it ironically emulates the rhetoric of CNN’s broadcast and its apologetic tone. But when the Rolling Stone article came out last week, it found itself already crammed in between pre-Wimbledon coverage, a lawsuit involving the USTA and filmmakers of the Venus and Serena documentary, and maybe worst of all, recent news that the supreme anonymous hacker in the Steubenville case had exposed himself in order to receive financial help for the FBI’s raid of his home. So, Serena and her PR team issued an apologetic statement on her personal website. I call it a statement because, well, was this really an apology?

Serena’s response

 “What happened in Steubenville was a real shock for me. I was deeply saddened. For someone to be raped, and at only sixteen, is such a horrible tragedy! For both families involved — that of the rape victim and of the accused. I am currently reaching out to the girl’s family to let her know that I am deeply sorry for what was written in the Rolling Stone article. What was written — what I supposedly said — is insensitive and hurtful, and I by no means would say or insinuate that she was at all to blame. I have fought all of my career for women’s equality, women’s equal rights, respect in their fields — anything I could do to support women I have done. My prayers and support always goes out to the rape victim. In this case, most especially, to an innocent sixteen year old child.”

It’s hard to feel her contrition in its truest form. “Deeply sorry for what was written” is not the kind of directness you hope to find in a controversial, publicly written apology. It leads to a bigger discussion and more questions about the state of journalistic integrity, too. Apparently, Mr. Rodrick has audio recordings of the entire day of conversations, but is everything “on the record” for an article like this? Is he allowed to transcribe Serena’s words directed only towards him, or is anything within earshot fair game? It’s an ethical dilemma not being discussed as much as Serena’s insensitive remarks that I hope will surface after London tennis gets underway. Serena addressed the media yesterday, and made some necessary adjustments to her apology.

“I apologize for everything that was said in that article. I feel like, you know, you say things without having all the information. It’s really important before you make certain comments to have a full list, have all the information, all the facts. I reached out to the family immediately once the article came out, and I had a really productive, sincere conversation with the mother and the daughter. We came to a wonderful understanding, and we’re constantly in contact.”

We’ve seen athletes and public figures apologize before, like Tiger Woods’ artificial press conference and senator Mark Sanford’s rambling regret, which took over two minutes into a news conference to begin his apology towards his family. But are these apologies- with mostly reactionary and cleaned-up syntax- ever really effective in conveying regret? The answer is usually “no,” and in many cases its because the people being “forced” to describe their faults don’t actually believe in their personal “sorry.” “Never apologize, it’s a sign of weakness,” said John Wayne. We’ve moved on from that era, but not very effectively.

                                                                                 Barbara Smaller | The New Yorker

In a New York Times article a few years ago, Dr. Aaron Lazare, a psychiatrist and retired dean of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, explained that in both public and private apologies, “you have to be specific, you have to say what you did, and you have to ask the offended person not just for forgiveness — but ask them what you need to do to make things right.”

The Serena apology has also come at a strange time thanks to the bizarre case of Paula Deen. The Food Network has cancelled her show after last week’s allegations from an employee about the famous southern chef’s use of the N----- word along with sexual and racial discrimination at one her owned restaurants. Deen cancelled an appearance on The Today Show to discuss the issue with Matt Lauer, but then issued an amateurishly filmed video apology to her fans and suits. Was she specific and did she ask what she could do to make things right? Very simply, no.



Back to Serena. Later in that same Rolling Stones article there was the other small controversy that erupted, this time over #3 women’s player in the world Maria Sharapova.

"There are people who live, breathe and dress tennis. I mean, seriously, give it a rest." Serena exits the car and the conversation moves on to a top-five player who is now in love. "She begins every interview with 'I'm so happy. I'm so lucky' – it's so boring," says Serena in a loud voice. "She's still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it." (An educated guess is she's talking about Sharapova, who is now dating Grigor Dimitrov, one of Serena's rumored exes.

It made some small waves once it reached Sharapova’s ears. Sharapova, who hasn’t beaten Serena Williams since Wimbledon in 2004, says Serena should just focus on tennis, ostensibly perturbed by her comments about Dimitrov. There is a perceived rivalry between them, but on the court, it’s hard to find. When you haven’t beaten someone since a time when, as Rodrick states, Matchbox Twenty was relevant, the only rivalry that can take place is one of words, and in this case hearsay.

“I made it a point to reach out to Maria, as well, because she was inadvertently brought into the situation by assumptions made by the reporter. I personally talked to Maria at the player party, incidentally. I said, ‘Look, I want to personally apologize to you if you are offended by being brought into my situation. I want to take this moment to just pour myself, be open, say I’m very sorry for this whole situation.”

Serena claims that Rodrick eavesdropped on those previous comments but later admitted she had shown poor judgment in even speaking like that with media around her.

“I’ve been in the business for a little over 200 years, so I should definitely, definitely know better. I should know better to always have my guard up.”

And that’s where this whole thing comes back to her Stubenville comments. Serena Williams should be apologizing for her hypocrisy, if anything. The rape victim probably should have known better too, and should have kept her guard up, right Serena? It’s a tricky situation allowing a writer full access to your day, aware that any words you say or feeling you infer will lack the same tone and intonation in someone’s iPad.

Serena did the right thing in re-apologizing and admitting her words as opposed to admitting the writer’s. She also gave a blueprint for athletes giving seemingly candid comments when around reporters, if it hadn’t already been laid. Don’t be surprised if she wins Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this year, and boasts a ridiculous match win streak to go along with it, currently at 31 in a row.  On the court, Serena is not only the best physically right now, but she has learned to also become one of the game’s best mentally.

This past week, she has hopefully learned what it will mean to be the best mentally off the court too.