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.”
The comments would be disappointing coming from anyone, much less a prominent female athlete in a sport that isn’t immune to sexual assault. Multiple tennis coaches, including a former professional, at academies around the country have been accused of sexually assaulting female students in recent years. If Williams wants to be a leader in her sport, you’d think she would want to foster an environment in which girls coming up in the academy system, as Williams did not, can feel safe reporting assaults or sexual misconduct, rather than worry that they might be blamed or treated badly by coaches and instructors.
That it’s Williams makes it more disappointing, because her own foundation aims to “provide assistance to youth whose parents and families have been affected by violent crimes…by funding and creating programs that will provide counseling, care (foster care and day care), housing, food, and education to youth who have been affected by violent crimes throughout the United States.” That would seem to include families affected by rape — and the Steubenville case could have been a place where it helped.
Williams apologized Wednesday in a statement on her web site, but even the statement sounded the wrong notes. She called the rape a “horrible tragedy” and said she is “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.” But this isn’t about what “was written” or what she “supposedly said.” It’s about what was said, and no matter her aim, Williams did say the victim was to blame for what happened to her.
“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,” Williams added in the statement. And that is certainly true. Williams has been an icon not just because she’s a champion but because of what she has overcome to become that champion, and what she represents to millions of people who face the same barriers she’s consistently trying to break. But that’s exactly what makes this instance so damning: a woman who’s been the subject of enormously ugly behavior and judgement criticized a girl who’s survived worse than being called too big for tennis. Fighting for women’s equality and rights means breaking down cultural barriers that prevent women from being safe and reaching their potential. In this instance, Williams only reinforced them.