Serena Williams and the US Open Verbal Abuse Incident

Like so many people, I got side tracked from work this week following Facebook comments pertaining to the 2018 US Open.  Except to my surprise, comments on my Facebook wall took a negative turn in ways that I did not anticipate.  Rather than have a conversation of opinions among adults, it was very clear that there are very strong opinions about what transpired in the women’s final between Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.

If you missed it (not sure how that is possible), Serena Williams was penalized in an allegedly harsh way for negative behavior pertaining to her frustration of receiving a loss of point for unauthorized coaching.  While on the surface this doesn’t seem like a big deal, if one watches the video, I think it is a big deal and was a situation that escalated out of control.   In my opinion, her choice of words and the way they were delivered was professionally inappropriate and does constitute verbal abuse.

So, my mind went to other places and wanted to know if there were scientific reasons to consider when evaluating whether Serena William’s behavior constituted verbal abuse and whether the umpire’s behavior was indeed unfair.

Aggression and Neuroscience

In my research, I quickly stumbled across an article by Micai, Kavussanu, and Ring (2016) that compared the executive functioning of both male and female athletes as it pertained to outcomes of antisocial and aggressive behavior.  Executive functioning are the skills needed to monitor, plan, and control our behaviors/emotions and are located in our frontal lobes (the front part of your head). The results suggested that poor self-reported executive functioning was related to higher levels of antisocial and aggressive sports behavior by male athletes but not female athletes.  This suggests that the male athletes may have less impulse control and, therefore, poor self-monitoring skills.  They did find that female athletes who argued, criticized, swore at or abused their team mates had poorer working memory and spatial planning skills but the correlations were weaker than found in male athletes.

In other words, scientific research shows that we probably need to be stricter with male athletes about their antisocial and aggressive behavior.  

The scale that was used to measure the antisocial behavior is called the Prosocial and Antisocial Behavior in Sport Scale.  It is a 43-item scale created by Kavussanu in 2009. Since that time, it has been used in numerous research studies to help add to the literature on prosocial and antisocial behavior of team sports.  Prosocial items include, “Asked to stop play when an opponent was injured,” “Gave positive feedback to a teammate,” or “Encouraged a teammate.”  The antisocial items include, “Verbally abused a teammate,” “Intentionally distracted an opponent,” or “Retaliated after a bad foul.”

Aggression was measured by the Reactive and Proactive Aggression Questionnaire, a 23 item self-report checklist.  It specifically is designed to measure aggression in relation to another person who has annoyed or angered the other person.  It asks the rater if, “they yelled at others who have annoyed” them or, “had fights with others to show who is on top.”

This post is not meant to be a research paper but to only highlight what may be an underlying issue none of us are paying attention to as it pertains to the Serena Williams incident. Namely, that we are excusing aggressive behavior because we do not punish men for similar behavior.

In my opinion, this is not just sexism, its stupidity.  Men are much more likely to act aggressively and have poor impulse control. This, however, does not mean that men should NOT be penalized for their behavior – it means that what happened in this match should happen when EVERYONE acts in ways that would be classified as aggressive or antisocial.  We should not be trying to give Serena Williams a break so much as to equalize the system so that everyone receives the same penalties for such transgressions.  It should be clear what constitutes verbal abuse and penalties should be instituted in an uniform manner.

She Lost her Cool.  Why is it a Big Deal?

Almost half of this country has experienced childhood maltreatment and multiple forms of abuse before the age of eighteen.  We are a traumatized nation who is living in a world of fear and anger on an everyday basis.  Children and adults with trauma histories need to see that abusive behavior can be dealt with in professional ways and that yelling, screaming or threatening in any way is simply not okay.

We all deserve to feel safe and treated with respect. While I understand that Serena Williams does not feel she was treated with respect (and I do understand why), it does not give a free pass to abuse someone in retaliation.  Most children would identify this as bullying.  We as a nation cannot tolerate minimizing aggressive behavior if we truly want to help everyone rise and make this nation a happy and healthy place we all call home.  Standing your ground in an assertive manner does not need to tip over into verbal abuse.

My Experience with Serious Abuse Cases

While in California, I worked on a particularly difficult child custody case.   It was a battered woman’s case and the allegations were the worst I had ever heard.  Yet, the one thing that stuck with me all these years is that when asked why he beat his wife, he simply said she spoke to him in the wrong way and deserved to have her head beaten so hard into the floor that she sustained permanent brain damage.  He yelled this at me and when I asked for him to lower his voice, he told me I was being biased.  He was given a warning but as he continued to escalate his tone with me, I was left with no choice but to end the interview and record it as incomplete.  The issue of bias was discussed for weeks before a judge made the decision that the children were not safe with an abusive father. Many years later, they are still in court arguing over what exactly constitutes abuse and whether abuse affects your parenting skills.

If there needed to be discussion in a case that was as clear cut as this as to what constitutes abuse, I think it is safe to say that our tolerance as a country for abusive behavior is way too high.

I don’t think any of us means to minimize aggressive behavior or make light of the seriousness of sexism.  We do, however, need to stop and think about the larger message of what it really meant when Naomi Osaka took the responsibility of apologizing for her win when a grownup lost her cool at work and took it out on another human being.  We are not talking about just etiquette here. We are talking about human rights and being able to take responsibility for one’s actions (because only antisocial people blame others without seeing their own contribution to the issue).  Professionals all do the best they can.  I certainly did with the case above and know I could have handled some things differently.  I hope this umpire learns what he could have done better to deescalate situations like this in the future.  His behavior is certainly not best practices for dealing with highly charged emotional situations and I’m sure he will have some professional repercussions from it and hopefully have some training.  Yet,  I’m still waiting for Serena William’s statement where she eloquently takes responsibility for her portion of the incident and then discusses why we need to stop giving free passes to male athletes for poor behavior.

Only time will tell how Serena Williams chooses to deal with this situation.  Speaking out shouldn’t result in a blurry line as to whether the words used are abusive. For me, the words used in this situation simply are just too close to what the above research article would code as aggression and I think we all should stop and think about what that really means for us all and what we value as a country and the messages it is sending to everyone.  I think we need to stop and think about whether we equate having a voice at all with aggression because that would mean we are constantly missing amazing examples of leadership. Naomi Osaka deserves credit for the way she handled herself during this difficult situation and perhaps its time to focus on those athletes who exhibit exemplary sportsmanship.

Dr. Jennifer Rhodes

Dr. Jennifer Rhodes

Licensed Psychologist and Founder of Rapport Relationships

Dr. Jennifer Rhodes is a relationship expert and licensed psychologist.  She provides dating strategy, consultation, and date coaching services to clients all over the world.  Dr. Rhodes is a frequently sought media expert on the topics of seduction, sensuality,  dating, divorce, and relationships.  In addition to Rapport Relationships, Dr. Rhodes is the founder of Visual Arts Reimagined (VAR) where she provides services to visual artists interested in entrepreneurship and leadership.

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