Wearing a black lace leotard and black stilettos, staring into the camera like the boss she is, Serena Williams sits on a throne with her legs to the side, the right one propped on the chair’s arm. That’s the fill-in-the-blank – powerful, provocative, puzzling, perturbing – Sports Illustrated cover photo that announced her as the magazine’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.
As with everything concerning Williams, this has caused a stir. End-of-year lists and rankings are natural starting points for conversation and debate. But most of the hullabaloo in this case arises because Williams elicits such strong feelings, positive and negative, among sports fans.
The other factor is SI listed a horse among 12 candidates in online balloting and the thoroughbred ran away with the readers’ vote.
Forty-seven percent of the voters selected Triple Crown-winner American Pharaoh as the one who “embodied the spirit of sportsmanship and achievement this year.” The Kansas City Royals came in second place with 29 percent of the vote, followed by soccer star Lionel Messi in third place with 6 percent of the vote. Williams was next-to-last with less than 1 percent of the vote; only track star Usain Bolt fared worse.
Horse lovers were furious. “Once again, Thoroughbred horse racing has been denied by mainstream sports media,” editor Brian Zipse wrote on the Horse Racing Nation blog. “Despite an overwhelming victory in the fan vote by American Pharaoh, maybe this sad announcement should come as no real surprise.”
What’s sad is the fact we’re having this discussion. American Pharaoh shouldn’t be in the mix for sportsperson of the year any more than, say, J.J. Watt should be a contender for horse of the year.
Why wasn’t Asteroid a candidate? He had a fantastic season on the Professional Bull Riders tour, ridden successfully just once.
Once we get past the equine outrage, there’s the concern about Williams’ photo.
She’s wearing 99 percent more clothing than women who appear on the cover of SI’s swimsuit issue, but she’s a bit too sensual and suggestive for some critics, such as Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey. He wrote that Williams is “looking like she wants one thing, and it’s not a chat with the line judge. … (The photo) in no way helps the cause of women looking to be recognized for their athletic abilities.”
I guess he’s making a broader point, but anyone who doesn’t recognize Williams’ abilities doesn’t recognize them in any woman. You can be super sexy and astoundingly athletic; it’s not an either-or proposition. We’re not talking about Anna Kournikova, the Russian bombshell who worked her looks to become a worldwide phenomenon, despite never reaching a Grand Slam singles final or ranking higher than No. 8.
Rather than her body, Williams’ body of work merits her inclusion near the top of “best athlete” lists. Yet, she has endured a slew of attacks throughout her career, especially this year, with a New York Times article suggesting she’s not feminine enough and online trolls suggesting she looks like a man. But there’s no shame to Williams’ game, leading her to post several in-your-face photos in the aftermath, all highlighting her physicality – whatever you might think of it.
She offered the same response in posing for her latest honor. In the article announcing Williams as SI’s pick, managing editor Christian Stone wrote: “The cover shot of this issue? Her inspiration, intended, like the Pirelli (2016 calendar) shots, to express her own ideal of femininity, strength, power.” Williams told USA Today that “I liked the idea of the throne. I said ‘Listen, this needs to be something that no one forgets, something iconic! I wanted it to be really special … really Serena.’ When we went with that, I loved it.”
As someone who believes that women in general, and African American women in particular, are over-sexualized in our society, I’m not crazy about the pose or attire. But it hardly detracts from Williams’ remarkable year.
In becoming the first individual women to win the award since Mary Decker in 1983, Williams won 53 of her 56 matches and three of the four Grand Slam titles. SI mentions that during the season, Williams “amassed twice as many ranking points as the world No. 2; at one point that gap grew larger than the one between No. 2 and No. 1,000.”
The Kansas City Royals or Messi or Steph Curry or Jordan Spieth would’ve been fine choices, too. But no one – not even Ronda Rousey, who finished third-from-the-bottom – had the cultural impact that Williams packed, touching issues of race, gender and body image. Rousey came the closest and I could see her winning if Holly Holm hadn’t knocked her out.
Just don’t talk to me about a horse unless you also want to consider Ch Tashtins Lookin For Trouble.
She won “Best in Show” at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show