The ancient Greeks used hubris to describe a personality of exaggerated pride or overconfidence. Often the hubristic person went so far as to challenge the gods, which inevitably led to that person’s downfall. The recent performance of Serena Williams at the U.S. Open and the exaggerated narrative of America’s greatness at John McCain’s funeral ceremony demonstrate how little we have learned from the past.
On the court, Williams was praised as a great champion despite her petulant behavior during the finals. “Perhaps it’s not the finish we were looking for today, “said Katrina Adams, chairman and president of the United States Tennis Association, “but Serena, you are a champion of all champions,” she added. “This mama is a role model and respected by all,” Adams stated at the awards ceremony after the chaotic women’s final. Local favorite Serena Williams not only lost in her quest to tie Steffi Graf’s record of 24 Grand Slam victories, but she was also assessed a rare one-game penalty for three code violations.
“Role model and respected by all”? During the match, she called the umpire “a liar” and “a thief.” She was also penalized because her coach gave her hand signals from the sidelines. And in a rage, she broke her racket. The three code violations added up to an automatic one-game penalty. Williams is no stranger to controversy. At the 2009 U.S. Open, when she was penalized for a foot fault, she yelled at the line judge; “I swear to God I’ll take the f---king ball and shove it down your f---king throat.” She was placed on probation.
At the 2011 U.S Open, Williams yelled these choice morsels at the umpire after shouting while her opponent was preparing to strike the ball: “I truly despise you. If you ever see me walking down the hall, look the other way because you're out of control, you're out of control. You're totally out of control. You're a hater and you're just unattractive inside…Really, don't even look at me. I promise you don't look at me... Don't look my way.'”
In each of these incidents Williams was losing the match. Whether or not the tantrums were designed to motivate herself or to intimidate her opponent, they were not dignified for someone who is considered the top or one of the top female players of all time. They were certainly not worthy of “a role model.”
Adams’s praise of Williams is part of Williams’ hubris developed with our encouragement. We want her to do well. The Serena Williams story, well documented in film and in print, tells of an African-American from the wrong side of the tracks (Compton, California) who through hard work and a demanding father rose to the top of the elitist, white tennis world. People want Serena to succeed like Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson. She has become part of the American dream of rags to riches, of multiracial integration, and now of empowering women.
Serena’s rudeness in no way diminishes her athletic achievements, but in no way should we forget or pardon her unacceptable behaviour. An Arthur Ashe or Althea Gibson she is not. They, like Chris Evert or Martina Navratilova, were never prone to courtside tantrums. As Navratilova wrote in an Op-ed after the recent women’s final outburst: “There have been many times when I was playing that I wanted to break my racket into a thousand pieces. Then I thought about the kids watching. And I grudgingly held on to that racket.”
Serena’s stardom has overshadowed her unsportsmanlike, diva behavior. We want her to succeed so we ignore or easily pardon her outbursts. Forget the sexist excuses; will she show replays of her outbursts when her daughter Olympia is older? Will she ever apologize?
When Adams said, “This mama is a role model and respected by all” she is expressing the wishful thinking of a women’s tennis tour that has more and more mothers competing. I was more impressed by the woman referring the men’s final with an understated control than the platitudes given to Serena’s gracious speech at the awards ceremony.
Wishful thinking is a dangerous substitute for reality. Hubris clouds our perception of who we really are. Off the court, an example of national hubris was on display at the National Cathedral memorial ceremony to honor John McCain. Henry Kissinger, who extended the Vietnam War for political reasons with 27,000 additional unnecessary American and countless Vietnamese deaths was front and center. So was Madeleine Albright, who wrote of the U.S. as the “indispensable nation.” They joined the best and the brightest to pay tribute to a warrior who was obsessed with force and power and American exceptionalism. While the Williams narrative is the underprivileged African-American as tennis hero, fashion designer and star among the stars, McCain’s nationally televised ceremony’s narrative was an honoring of the greatness of the United States.
As if the Vietnam War was similar to World War II when the United States help defeat the fascist powers, and John McCain’s heroism under torture could lead us to forget what he was doing bombing Vietnamese civilians, the National Cathedral ceremony was as surreal as Katrina Adams declaring Serena Williams a role model. “America does not boast because she does not need to,” Meghan McCain said. “The America of John McCain does not need to be made great again, because America was always great.”
“America was always great”? A statement of fact with no description of what has made it great. Slavery? Racism? Native Americans? No need to qualify the greatness. It is assumed, just as Serena is assumed by Adams to be a role model with no qualifications about her actual behavior on the court. For Meghan and the crowd that applauded these lines, John McCain was a hero because he was part of a great America.
Serena Williams is a great athlete. However, her behavior on the court disqualifies her as a role model. John McCain was an exemplary soldier. However, the war in which he fought and his advocacy for the unqualified use of force by the United States disqualify him as a role model. The “greatness” of the United States must be contextualized and deserved. Hubris cannot overshadow reality; what we want should not obscure what is out there.