The Women’s Tennis Association over the weekend fined and suspended the president of the Russian Tennis Federation after he referred to Venus and Serena Williams as “the Williams brothers” during an appearance on a Russian comedy program last week. The WTA suspended Shamil Tarpischev, who also said the sisters are “scary” to look at, for one year and fined him $25,000, the maximum allowed under its rules. The WTA is also examining his role in the Kremlin Cup, a top Russian tournament as well.
Tarpischev also holds a position with the International Olympic Committee, which said Monday that it has asked Tarpischev for an explanation and could take further action.
While preparing for the WTA Finals in Singapore, Serena Williams praised the WTA’s action and blasted Tarpischev for the “sexist and racist” remarks.
“I thought they were very insensitive and extremely sexist as well as racist at the same time,” Williams said, according to the New York Times. “I thought they were in a way bullying. I’ve done the best that I can do, and that’s all I can say. So I just wasn’t very happy with his comments. I think a lot of people weren’t happy as well.”
“I think the WTA did a great job of taking (the) initiative and taking immediate action to his comments,” Williams added, according to the Associated Press.
Other players, including Russia’s Maria Sharapova, have come to the Williams sisters’ defense, blasting the comments. While Tarpischev has said he regrets making them, he has not fully apologized, saying that the comedic nature of the comments was lost in translation and that he does “not think that this story deserves such hype.”
Joking or not, though, the comments are rooted in long-standing and pernicious stereotype of women athletes and their bodies. Women like the Williams sisters who excel at sports often aren’t seen as exceptional women athletes, but as women who are much more, and often outright, comparable to men. And that’s the case even more when their bodies don’t conform to typical standards of beauty and femininity, at which point women athletes end up on the wrong end of deliberate shaming and “jokes” like Tarpischev’s. The Williams sisters, and Serena in particular, are not strangers to this. Their bodies have been critiqued and criticized for years. And these criticisms, whether they are about players who “look like men” or just about the general wrongness of certain bodies, happen throughout women’s sports, to athletes like Brittney Griner and Sarah Robles and plenty of others who don’t fit into the “standard” women’s body type.
That leads to questions, or in some cases demands, about their fitness that players change the way they look. It creates body image issues (which Serena has talked openly about on multiple occasions). It can leave athletes in certain sports underfunded, as they are less desirable for marketing and endorsement purposes. And it acts as a major barrier to all sorts of women, from young women who don’t want to enter sports because they don’t want to be perceived as “manly” or “butch” to lesbian women who feel (and often are) pressured to stay in the closet so they don’t reaffirm existing stereotypes about women’s sports as, to borrow soccer star Abby Wambach’s words, “a lesbian world” (there’s a double-edged sword here too, as women athletes who do fit into traditional beauty standards are often hyper-sexualized and appreciated for their looks more than their athletic achievements).
This happens to men too, but there’s less appreciation or even acceptance of different body types when it comes to women athletes. There are some signs that the perceptions and criticisms are getting better — like both Nike and the WNBA’s decision to put Griner front-and-center in marketing campaigns, or the greater appreciation of Serena and Venus, or celebrations of different body types like ESPN The Magazine’s always-improving Body Issue. But these problems are still common, and that’s why the WTA’s move to protect its biggest players and take action against these comments is such a welcome step in the right direction.