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Why Doesn’t Serena Williams Have More Sponsorship Deals?

By N Oji Mzilikazi

29 September 2015

Serena Williams is undeniably the greatest female athlete of the era, maybe the era’s greatest athlete. Yet, Williams is ranked 47 on Forbes’s list of the highest paid athletes. And of the seven tennis players on the list (Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, Serena Williams), Serena ranks last in endorsement dollars.

Given that centuries of patriarchal dominance has it that males are paid much more than females, even if and when all things are equal, male athletes including the less-successful having more endorsement deals/making more money than Serena Williams is par for the course, but Maria Sharapova?

Maria Sharapova cannot light a candle to Serena. Serena has had 17 consecutive victories over Maria. Serena has twice the amount of career titles owned by Sharapova.

Serena leads all active players with 21 Grand Slams. Next is Venus Williams with 7, then Maria Sharapova with 5.

Sharapova has not defeated Serena since 2004. But since 2004, Sharapova has been the world’s highest-paid female athlete.

Serena can’t touch Sharapova when it comes to sponsorships. And it has everything to do with Serena Williams’ blackness.

Martina Hingis whose career was brought to a premature end when she failed a drugs test for cocaine during Wimbledon said of the Williams sisters: Being black only helps them. Many times they get sponsors because they are black.

Contrary to Hingis’ musing, the blackness of Serena and Venus is precisely why sponsors do not knock on their doors as they ought to.

Economics is at the heart of racism. Racial discrimination is rooted in economics. Hence, racism enduring support – even when its tenets are both scientifically and intellectual debunked. Racial discrimination is the lived experience of people of African descent, yet the insidiousness that black skin accrues unwarranted privileges and benefits still hold sway.

Anna Kournikova never won a WTA singles tournament or reached a singles Grand Slam final, yet Kournikova was able to make a personal fortune out of endorsements.

Kournikova earnings allowed her parents to live off her. And so much so, they sued her to protect their continued feeding.

Kournikova fulfilled the stereotypical white and blond beauty template. The one that causes white prepubescent boys and white teenage boys to drool, adult white boys to have sexual fantasies, and old white men desirous of having the person as trophy or be in their company,  and young girls to admire, aspire to become or imitate.

Kournikova was tennis’s favourite pinup girl. Boys loved Anna Kournikova. Girls loved Anna Kournikova. Tennis tournaments loved Anna Kournikova. Wall Street loved Anna Kournikova.

Kournikova was given centre courts to play all her tennis matches, and Kournikova landed “A class” sponsors like Charles Schwab, Adidas, and Omega Watches.

Dubbed the “most successful loser in sports,” Kournikova even eclipsed Venus Williams, with all her career titles including Grand Slam wins, as the highest-paid female athlete.

Many tennis pundits didn’t like that Venus Williams and Serena Williams were winning numerous titles and increasingly were the last two standing in Grand Slam finals. So they poisoned the airwaves, television’s watching audience and the printed page with innuendos and bias. They needed a white heroine…

When Maria Sharapova defeated Serena Williams to claim the 2004 Wimbledon title, she was immediately crowned tennis “It” girl.

The tennis establishment saw Sharapova as the long awaited sexy and beautiful white hope to “rescue” the WTA from the clutches of the “Amazonian” Williams’ sisters. They gushed over her win as one for the ages, and a lot was made of it being in straight sets.

Concerned solely with white demographics, Wall Street saw Sharapova as the perfect choice to advertise/sell their product and services. Thus, Sharapova was able to secure contracts with some of the biggest companies, and remain the world’s highest paid female athlete — for so long.

In their eyes, despite the inroads and successes of Black and Asian tennis players, tennis is still a white country-club sport.

In their eyes, Serena Williams doesn’t cut it.

In spite of her athletic ability and talents, celebrity status and visibility, her downright African phenotype and “militant” blackness as opposed to the “subdued and downplayed” blackness of the likes of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan negates her bankability.

In 2000, Serena boycotted the Family Circle Cup in Hilton Head, South Carolina, over the Confederate Flag being flown over the State Capitol. Serena boycotted Indian Wells for 14 years on account of the boos and racial slurs thrown at her father and Venus when they came to see her contest the 2001 finals.

In embodying the “skinny white chick,” Maria Sharapova with her one-dimensional ball-bashing game, woeful court movement, and banshee wailing is seen as worth every penny.

Meritocracy is a myth…

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London 2012: The Olympics White Racial Frame

London 2012: The Olympics White Racial Frame

By N Oji Mzilikazi

August 9, 2012

(Originally published in the Montreal Community Contact Volume 22, Number 15)

It takes years of training, hard-work, sacrifices, total commitment, peaking at the right time, being on top of one’s game at the right moment, and sometimes a little bit of luck for an athlete to not just qualify for the Olympics, but to win a medal as well. Therefore, one must wonder what would possess an athlete to throw away their Olympics by engaging in racism. After all, racism is not a disease hereditary or otherwise, but a deliberate and purposeful choice.

Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou was kicked off the Greek Olympic team for a racist tweet against African immigrants in Greece. Then she had the nerve to claim being upset and bitter over the disciplinary decision.

South Korea defeated Switzerland 2-1 in a soccer match. Deep-rooted feelings of white racial superiority resulted in Swiss player Michel Morganella posting a racist tweet against South Korea. He was subsequently expelled.

16-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen won the 400m individual medley in a world-record time. In no time at all, John Leonard, executive director of the USA Swimming Coaches Association openly cast aspersions on her swim.

He defended his suspicions by citing that “the Chinese have a doping history.” It’s not as if American hands are clean when it comes to doping.

Commentator and former tennis player Rennae Stubbs is a fan of Serena Williams. In her search for superlatives to describe Serena’s dominance, she referenced Serena hitting the ball to that of hitting a watermelon.

Though Stubbs is Australian, there is no way she wouldn’t be aware that “watermelon” like “fried chicken” have racial connotations – even though whites consume more of them than Blacks. Though no offence was intended, surely she could’ve invoked a basketball or football for the audience visualization. To pull watermelon out of the hat speaks volumes.

The Network TV Press Release of August 5th stated that the Serena Williams – Maria Sharapova Gold Medal Match drew 7.9 million viewers.

Given the 6-0, 6-1 drubbing, almost 8 million viewers saw “It Girl” Sharapova who recently won the French Open, and was on top of her game humiliated – and on the hallowed grounds of Wimbledon – the site of her greatest victory. It was the worst defeat in women’s Olympic singles final history.

Sharapova’s 2004 defeat of Serena at Wimbledon propelled her into stardom, landed her lucrative contracts and the biggest endorsement for a female athlete. A win over Serena would’ve given Sharapova the career Golden Slam (victories at the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open, and Olympic Gold), the #1 rank, and undoubtedly bigger and better endorsements.

Serena was the one that walked away with the Golden Slam. Serena is now the second female to have a Golden Slam. Steffi Graf achieved that feat in 1988.

Serena’s breathtaking performance, tennis clinic, and demolition of Sharapova stunned everyone.

For the first time in my life I saw tennis commentators at a loss of words and unable to unleash snide and snarky remarks about Serena.

Haters would always find reasons to hate. Serena’s few seconds of dancing celebration – doing the “Crip Walk” became a straw man. She was now endorsing the notorious Crips, even though it was a “Crip” that murdered her sister.

In the men’s tennis singles final, Andy Murray humiliated Roger Federer. The effusiveness was of such that both American and Canadian television broadcasters repeatedly ran several minutes of the match including the trophy presentation. Venus Williams and Serena Williams won Olympic Doubles Gold that very day. It brought their haul to 4 Olympic Gold medals each, and being the “winningest” Olympic tennis players ever. Compared to Andy Murray, the clip of their win was a blur.

Jordyn Wieber was the all-around gymnastic world champion and deserving the hype. Americans expected her to be the golden girl of gymnastics. Gabrielle Christina Victoria Douglas from Virginia, aka Gabby Douglas, African-American, and nicknamed “The flying squirrel” won the US Trials.

She qualified for more Olympic events than the other Americans on the gymnastic team, yet from the tone and commentary from the announcers, one would swear she was the weakest link.

The Olympic rule for the all-around finals is two finalists per nation. Wieber failed to qualify for the Olympic all-around finals. She was beaten by two other American – Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman.

The devastation was so unbearable to both Weiber and her coach John Geddert, he blasted the rule. In addition to calling it dumb, Geddert said, it’s a shame that the world champion doesn’t get to compete in the Olympic all around finals.”

There was so much emotional investment in Weiber; gymnastic pundits and huge numbers of gymnastic fans had no room in their hearts for 16-year-old Gabby Douglas.

Gabby won the all-around gold – the medal that defines gymnastic achievements, and the hype machine that surrounds that accomplishment at every Olympics broke down. The glowing tributes to make her name a household one wasn’t there. However, the racists got their groove on; some Americans even lamenting that Russian gymnast Victoria Komova was robbed.

Approximately 10 hours had passed when Gabby won gold and NBC aired her performance. Upon Bob Costas spouting the feel good spiel of Gabby’s gold-medal performance being inspirational to young African-American girls, the ad that followed featured a monkey doing gymnastics. And, of course, it was purely coincidental!!!

When Nigeria squared off against Lithuania in the men’s basketball match, a whole block of Lithuanian supporters had their monkey chant going on. The report qualified the racist outburst with the men “were mostly drunk.” Drunk people are known to get a pass…

UK Guardian columnist Emma John, in the article, “Gabrielle Douglas wins London 2012 gymnastics all-around gold” wrote: The US duo came here on the back of a team gold won in ruthless style and were once again were niggardly with their errors. (It has since been edited.)

While “niggardly” has nothing to do with the N-word, referencing it in regards to a Black person is in extremely poor taste. Writers/journalists know the power of words and semantics. Surely, John could’ve used the simple, more to the point and better adjective that is “stingy.”

While John supposedly meant no offence with “niggardly,” its usage points to conscious and unconscious predilection of white folks to play “coded” word games in regards to people of African descent.

Douglas was the only person on team America to compete in the 4 apparatus that comprise the team competition. She had the highest scores for the USA in the Uneven Bars and Beam. She had higher scores over Jordyn Wieber in the 3 apparatus Weiber contested.

Upon the USA winning Gold, the hype machine was of such:Jordyn Wieber finds redemption in leading Team USA to gold in women’s gymnastics” (Yahoo) Alex Kay, writing for the Bleacher Report stated: Jordyn Wieber was the star for the Americans, just two days after failing to qualify for the individual all-around finals.”

The Washington Post was honest. Its headline read, “Gabby Douglas, Jordyn Wieber lead U.S. women’s gymnastics to gold” and featured a picture of Gabby Douglas airborne.

While Steve Almasy, CNN article, “Fab Five brings home gymnastics gold” acknowledges Gabby Douglas led the U.S. to a 183.596 score, he pointed out that “Jordyn Wieber was a key part of the victory also, placing third in the vault and fourth on the floor.” Third and fourth as key contributors?

The nature of the beast to Black accomplishment is always an elevation of the bar. The reaction to Tiger amassing wins was the “Tiger-proofing” of golf courses – making it more difficult for him to win. The Williams domination in tennis resulted in the slowing of the courts and changing of the ball.

Gabby won all-around gold. Interestingly, British Guardian writer Judith Mackrell opined that “the levels of technical ability require of today’s gymnast…come at the expense of fluency of phrasing, and grace,” and had high praise for Russian silver-medalist Victoria Komova, “the most dancerly of this year’s female competitors.” While she acknowledged Gabby Douglas won hearts and points, she equated Gabby to a show pony.