Serena Williams and (un)equal treatment in tennis (Spoiler: she has a case)

What? We’re not just automatons observing the driverless revolutions!

What happened? Serena Williams, greatest women’s tennis player of all time, and one of the best athletes of all time, was getting beaten by a younger, fitter opponent in the women’s final of the US Open. She received three violations which upset her and cost her a game. The violations were for (1) getting coaching, (2) smashing her racket, and (3) verbally abusing the umpire. The coaching and racket-smashing were not debated, but, though she was clearly berating the umpire, it is debatable whether the umpire should have levied the third violation. (I say he could have held off, but it could have gone either way. Seeing it, and doling out the Blame Pie, I give the umpire 40%, Serena 50%, and the coach 10%).

The ensuing controversy was sparked when Serena claimed she received unfair treatment and that men are not held to the same standard as women. The internet exploded into opinions and yelling on both sides– there being only two sides these days, of course. The controversy comes down to the following: Was Serena– and female players in general– treated unfairly, as she claims?

The NYTimes published a dataset that showed men, in fact, were given 3x the number of violations as women. This dataset seemed to have settled the debate: Serena’s claim was not valid that women were being treated unfairly.

But hold on!

From that dataset, just one of the recorded violations is unambiguous. The rest are, to varying degrees, subjective to umpire judgment. Destroying a tennis racket, on the other hand, is clear. If you do it, you get a violation. And men have smashed 646 rackets compared to just 99 rackets smashed by women. That’s men behaving in an unsportsmanlike fashion 6.5x more often than women. This is the one unambiguous fact about bad behavior among genders in tennis.

If we assume that men act in other realms– verbal abuse, ball abuse, audible obscenities– at the same rate of 6.5x more often than women, then Serena does in fact have a valid claim that women are not given equal treatment, because the NYTimes dataset only showed men receiving 3x the number of violations. Maybe men are allowed to yell more, behave worse, before receiving a violation.

To help explain, suppose the US Men’s Nat’l soccer team was claiming they were getting unfair treatment by the refs. The Italians get away with more, they claim. But suppose the Italian federation puts forth data that shows that Italians are, in fact, called for 2x more fouls than the American team is. Does this mean the American claim of unfairness has no merit? Of course not. It could be that the Italians are 4x the jerks the American soccer players are, and the fouls committed shouldn’t just be slightly more by the Italians, they should be 4x more by the Italians.

So, it’s not clear if there is strong enough evidence of unfair treatment to validate Serena’s claim, but it this published dataset certainly does not debunk her claim, either.