CreditBen Solomon for The New York Times
The electric talent Sloane Stephens, a player just now coming into her own after having her career nearly wrecked by injuries, won the U.S. Open women’s tournament last week. But let’s not kid ourselves: The real winner of this year’s tournament was Serena Williams.
More specifically, Serena Williams’s Instagram. From the shots of her baby shower to her glorious pregnant belly and finally an adorable shot of mother and child dozing together, Williams owned the Open. The only tennis story bigger this entire year was a seven-months-pregnant Williams smashing backhands in a video posted during Wimbledon. (Pity her poor sister, Venus: She couldn’t even enjoy her own run to the Wimbledon finals without having announcers tell us how inspired she must be by Serena’s impending motherhood.)
Surely, this is a step forward from years past, when female athletes had to end their careers for childbirth or were discouraged from playing when pregnant. Motherhood is now even part of female athletes’ heartwarming hero narratives, like Kim Clijsters and Lindsay Davenport in tennis, and the married W.N.B.A. players DeWanna Bonner and Candice Dupree, who are raising twin daughters together despite being on different teams.
In this area — the recognition of a full life off the playing field, the acceptance that our athletes don’t materialize out of thin air when they step on the field — male athletes fall short of their female counterparts. They remain stat-generating robots who exist solely to make our teams win: Their off-field lives aren’t just irrelevant to us, they’re annoying distractions from what really matters.
Colin Kaepernick’s protest and subsequent blackballing by the N.F.L. is the most high-profile example. But our insistence that male athletes keep their lives to themselves isn’t limited to their political views. Every time a male athlete takes a few days off for the birth of his child, he’s inevitably showered with “Where are his priorities?” complaints from fans and sports columnists. (“If they choose not to plan their nine-month family expansion activities to coincide with the eight months per year when their work activities don’t entail playing games that count, why should their teams suffer the consequences?” Mike Florio at NCB wrote, succinctly summing up the mind-set in 2012.)
Players who have taken time off to deal with mental health problems are seen as weak or somehow not “focused” enough to overcome them. “To show weakness, we’re told in sports, is to deserve shame,” the former tennis star Mardy Fish, who withdrew from a 2012 U.S. Open match against Roger Federer because of anxiety, told USA Today.
Emotional states in male athletes can even be mostly ignored or given more “comfortable” explanations. Stephen Piscotty, a right fielder for my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, has had a disappointing year at the plate. A logical reason for this might be that early in the season his mother was told she had A.L.S. But Piscotty’s struggles have not been attributed to that. Instead, “his timing is off” or “he’s just having one of those years” is the preferred nomenclature.
And compare, say, Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams. Djokovic, one of the best tennis players of all time, has had the worst year of his career, falling below No. 2 in the rankings for the first time since 2011 and prompting John McEnroe to question his desire. He left the tour in July to rest his elbow and “spend quality time” with his family.
We’ve grown accustomed to dismissing that as news release talk, but it turned out that his wife had their second child at the beginning of September. Few even knew she was pregnant, or even thought to ask. Surely this had something to do with Djokovic’s year?
At the U.S. Open, commentators kept telling me that Venus Williams was playing great tennis because she was inspired by her sister’s having a child. I think she was playing at that level because she’s one of the greatest athletes on the planet and has the competitive streak to match.
When I hear a commentator note that a male athlete is affected in any possible way by his sister’s having a child somewhere thousands of miles away, it will be a first. This disparity is ultimately infantilizing of female athletes, patting them on the head for off-field stories, as if their on-court accomplishments aren’t enough. And while we can’t stop talking about Venus Williams’s off-court life, we rarely think to ask about Novak Djokovic’s.
We’d rather our male athletes not have emotional lives, but if they have to have them, we’d rather not know about it.
Perhaps it’s indicative of a larger need to pretend that sports are somehow separate from real life, as if our athletes have no interior lives but simply appear when we as sports fans beckon them. Why is it more pronounced for male athletes than female athletes? It might be because there are (slightly) more male sports fans than female sports fans — 66 percent of men are sports fans, 51 percent of women, in a 2015 Gallup poll — and, well, male sports fans usually watch more male athletes than female athletes. The more sports you watch, the less perspective you have, and the more likely you are to see an athlete more as a stat producer (or a key producer for your team, or the guy likely to win you gambling money) than as a human being. Women are allowed to have off-field lives that affect their on-field ones because male fans simply care about those sports less.
But there is much evidence that that is changing: Women’s tennis television ratings are often better than men’s, the United States women’s soccer team got the highest ratings in American soccer history in 2015, and the W.N.B.A. finals notched their highest ratings last year. Women’s sports are more popular than they have ever been, and that growth continues exponentially.
Which points to a potential evolution in attitudes. It’s not difficult to imagine a time when this odd condescension ends and male sports fans are just as unreasonable about Serena Williams’s taking time off to have a child as they are when a male athlete does the same for his child’s birth. Don’t mess up their fantasy tennis teams, Serena. Progress expresses itself in the strangest ways sometimes.