“If I could, I’d shove this ball down your f—ing throat,” Serena Williams growled at the line judge who just called her for a foot fault. Williams then continued to berate her until the judge called over tournament officials because she felt physically threatened.
Roger Federer’s curses came by way of mere whining about a late challenge from Juan Martin del Potro that was upheld by the chair umpire. “You have any rules? Don’t tell me to be quiet, okay? When I want to talk, I’ll talk, all right? I don’t give a s— what he said, okay?”
Both incidents were surprising, coming from the foremost stars in the sport. More surprising to me, however, were the number of pundits who thought that neither outburst was a big deal.
On ESPN’s “PTI,” Michael Wilbon, who I love, moaned that he’s tired of people whining about their delicate ears, stating that athletes curse all the time and we should get used to it. Yes, athletes swear a lot, but how often do they threaten officials as Williams did?
If a business professional ranted about corporate losses at a company’s annual meeting as Serena Williams did, he or she would probably be fired. If the President erupted with a stream of curse words before a joint session of congress, he or she would be lambasted. Heck, if I try to #@&%ing swear in this #@&%ing column it doesn’t even #@&%ing work.
Pundits are saying that these incidents aren’t a big deal since we hear the taboo words the tennis stars used nearly every day in our culture. We hear them in popular music, we hear them in just about every R rated movie, we hear them on the school bus, at the bar, and on, and on, and on. To me, that’s not the point.
It’s not about the words. It’s about the whining. It’s about their image. I think it is a big deal because these athletes are also competing for the public’s respect. They compete for the public’s respect because the public’s respect buys a lot of shoes, clothes and sports equipment made by brands that offer athletes lucrative endorsement contracts.
That’s why, to me, the outbursts at the U.S. Open weren’t the most offensive displays of the weekend. That honor goes to Michael Jordan and his insanely self-indulgent hall of fame acceptance speech.
For those that didn’t see it, you can watch it online at (www.nba.com/video/channels/hall_of_fame/2009/09/11/nba_20090911_hof_jordan_speech.nba/). Here, I’ll just summarize it for you. “Before I get started I’d like to take time to humiliate Jerry Krause who surrounded me with talented players that allowed me to win six NBA titles. Next I’d like to thank, me, myself, I, MJ, No. 23, No. 45, MJ the baseball player, Michael, Jordan, and, oh what the heck, me again. Everyone doubted me. I proved them wrong at every turn. And lest you forget, I am the greatest basketball player ever and this moment is all about me.”
That’s just a loose transcript, but you get the point. As someone who looked up to Jordan with admiration, even as he crushed my Knicks time and again in the playoffs, the moment was heartbreaking. Here was a man whose work ethic was as legendary as his talent, using his moment to rub everyone’s noses in his success. The Utah Jazz, whom he vanquished in the NBA Finals, the player his varsity high school coach picked ahead of him, there were plenty of jabs to go around.
Some pundits praised Jordan for dropping the buttoned-up facade that helped him earn more endorsement money and adoration than anyone on the planet. Perhaps, there’s something to be said for that, for his giving us a glimpse of the “real” Jordan and not just more of the facade. But I’ll say this, the athletes I choose to hold in highest esteem have no facade to drop.
Are these three transgressions truly terrible? Perhaps not. However, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for athletes to conduct themselves with civility and class in return for my respect, not to mention my money. Perhaps I’m old fashioned. Perhaps I live in an ivory tower. But I think I’ll reserve any grand appreciation for athletes who behave in a manner that I truly idolize — with humility, sportsmanship and grace. With these three, those qualities were clearly lacking.