American Pharoah’s Triple Crown, the first in 37 years, was a momentous occasion for horse racing, and a momentous occasion in sports.
Today, Sports Illustrated announced that it was not American Pharoah, but rather Serena Williams, who has won their Sportsperson of the Year designation. A lot of people in racing were disappointed. Even I was, at first, given how monomaniacally focused I tend to be on horse racing.
However, let’s read the condition book:
Sportsman of the Year honors the athlete, team coach or individual who, by virtue of performance and character on and off the field, transcended the year in sports.
The guiding principle of Sportsman of the Year selection: “While the victory may have been his, it is not for the victory alone that he is honored. Rather, it is for the quality of his effort and manner of his striving.”
American Pharoah proved himself to be a fantastic athlete, but to say he “transcended the year in sports” seems a stretch.
A few people have gone so far as to cast aspersions toward Serena Williams’s selection, to dismiss her by saying that she would not have won this award over American Pharoah were she not a Black woman.
That both belittles her achievements and misses the point.
Serena Williams’s record on the tennis court this year was extraordinary. She won three of the four grand slam tournaments. She won 53 of her 56 tennis matches. She was the top-ranked female tennis player in the world by a landslide. She did this despite sickness, despite injuries, at various points in the season. Serena Williams was an athletic powerhouse in 2015.
But, we cannot — and should not — erase race or gender from the conversation surrounding her selection.
In the discussion of the rationale behind Sports Illustrated’s selection of Serena Williams, Christian Stone acknowledged that her performance on the tennis court was part of it, and then stated:
“But we are honoring Serena Williams too for reasons that hang in the grayer, less comfortable ether, where issues such as race and femininity collide with the games.”
And, this goes to how Serena Williams “transcended the year in sports”.
It matters that Serena Williams is a Black woman.
It matters within her sport, in light of the fact that tennis still has a reputation as such a rich, white sport. (Does that public image sound familiar, horse racing folks?) Serena Williams has been at the pinnacle of tennis for so long, despite not having been born right into its country-club stereotype. That takes both athletic skills and mental strength that most people do not have.
It matters beyond tennis, when people are still deriding her for being Black and female and strong, even deliberately misgendering her. Even responses to her Sports Illustrated cover have crossed right back into the realm of policing her and her body. This has been going on and on, and yet Serena Williams has continued to assert her autonomy. This should not be controversial. Unfortunately, it remains so — and yet, she hasn’t caved in to those who would have her water down how she chooses to present herself. This speaks strongly and well of her “character…off the field”, part of the considerations for Sportsperson of the Year.
It matters beyond tennis, and it matters beyond how people see her as an athlete. This year, white people have had the nerve to call this a post-racial society, to dismiss callously the Black Lives Matter movement (and even the idea that the lives of Black people actually do matter) by screaming “all lives matter” while Black people are still shunned, hurt, and killed for being Black. In light of this, the fact that Serena Williams has used her platform as a top-level athlete to become involved with discussing off-the-court issues of equality stands out. It speaks loudly to her performance and character away from tennis.
So, yes. American Pharoah performed a momentous feat by winning the Triple Crown. American Pharoah may have been great on the track this year, but when all was said and done, he would be honoured “for the victory alone”. Neither he nor the team behind him publicly played such a role with issues outside of horse racing. American Pharoah did not transcend the year in sports.
Looking at the conditions of Sportsperson of the Year with a cooler head, Serena Williams makes far more sense than American Pharoah. She not only dominated the tennis courts this year, but she mattered in contexts off of it. And, yes, much of how and why Serena Williams mattered relates to her being a Black woman. The importance of that should not be understated or dismissed.