Was Media Out of Line with Serena Williams Drug Accusations During Wimbledon?

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Was Media Out of Line with Serena Williams Drug Accusations During Wimbledon?
Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press
Serena Williams buries her head in her hands as she receives medical attention from Wimbledon staff.

Three weeks after Serena Williams appeared dizzy and bewildered during a Wimbledon doubles match, speculation continues. 

Is it fair?

I was among the millions who watched in disbelief. How could you not? One of the greatest players of all time was struggling to catch a ball. A woman who has arguably the best serve in the history of the sport double-faulted a game away.

Like everyone else, I wanted an explanation. 

Wimbledon officials offered one. They issued a statement that said Williams suffered from a viral illness. That's where the speculation needed to end.

Instead, some people continued to question Williams' diagnosis. Martina Navratilova rejected the viral-illness explanation. She was quoted in numerous publications, including on ESPNW.com, as saying "I don't buy it.

"I think virus, whatever they're saying it was, I don't think that was it. I think it's clear that's not the case. I don't know what it is, but I hope Serena will be OK."

Outraged, fans took to Twitter and accused Navratilova of crossing the line. Navratilova defended her comments.

Last week, someone started a petition on Change.org demanding that ESPN's Pam Shriver and Chris Evert apologize for what some fans believed were accusations of drug use.

During the live broadcast, Shriver said: "It’s almost like she has taken something that makes her feel dizzy, disoriented, and she cannot reach up and strike the ball."

Evert even questioned Williams' intent. Business Insider ran quotes from Evert's post-match analysis: "Is it a virus? Is it something unintentional or intentional in her system that they may drug test for?"

Not all journalists felt the need to feed this narrative. In an interview with CNN's Jake Tapper, Ben Rotenberg, a contributing writer with the The New York Times, talked about what he saw, instead of speculating on what he thought. 

I have no reason to believe it was not a virus. But it was very clear, from the very early stage, she has no business taking the court. I mean, even during the warm up, the ball kids were trying to bounce her balls to take practice serves and she couldn't even catch them.

The balls were rolling past her, just no hand-eye coordination, no motor skills working whatsoever. It was a bizarre sight to see.

Much was made about her coach Patrick Mouratoglou's comments that he had not seen her in "a couple of days." Given that Williams was knocked out of the singles tournament three days prior, why was this startling news? Mouratoglou doesn't coach their doubles team. 

There's a difference between innuendo and making stuff up. When you make statements about someone's health without any evidence to substantiate the claims, you are essentially making something up.

The only offense worse than making things up without any proof is to continue pontificating a contrary point of view in the face of evidence. 

In a round-table discussion on the ESPN Wimbledon set, Evert, Shriver, LZ Granderson and Hannah Storm talked about the perceived lack of reaction from the Williams camp. They spoke at length about the possibility of the Williams staging the whole thing. 

Granderson suggested those in Williams' camp didn't appear overly concerned about her health.

Melissa Isaacson, of ESPN.com, drew parallels to Williams' "mysteriousness" in 2010. Isaacson wrote: "Immediately, you had to flash back to 2010, when we heard that while celebrating her fourth Wimbledon title at a dinner in Germany, she cut both of her feet, reportedly on broken glass, while leaving the restaurant. She claimed to cut her foot on broken glass."

Uh, no. Isaacson's article was the only place I read about a "flashback" to 2010. Oddly, she chose to ignore the well-documented foot surgery or that Williams wore a cast and boot on her foot for months. 

Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Oracene Price, Serena Williams' mom, appears concerned as she stands up in the player's box.

Meanwhile, an ESPN report compiled from news services stated that her mother, Oracene Price, stood up in the players' box.

Yes, that Oracene Price, the one often seen falling asleep at matches. She was photographed standing, clearly concerned about her daughter. 

Granderson went on to point out how little reaction he saw from Venus Williams, who rarely shows any emotion. Yet she took her 32-year-old sister by the hand to lead her off the court. We saw that. 

What we didn't see were any comments from people with a medical background. It would have been helpful to hear about what types of viral illnesses could cause such stammering.

Vertigo came to my mind. Caused by a viral infection of the inner ear, vertigo can leave you dizzy and disoriented. I speak from firsthand experience. I suffered from vertigo several times in the past. I recall holding on to walls as I attempted to walk down stairs while it looked like the room was spinning. 

With vertigo, any quick movement of the head, down or up, increases the spinning sensation. Without any walls to cling to, someone suffering from vertigo would probably look like a drunk. 

Of course, I have zero medical expertise. However, Wimbledon employs doctors and trainers. A couple of them examined Williams that day. Their diagnosis was that she had a viral illness.

A viral illness, though, does not seem to fit the narrative that some in the media have created about Williams. 

The ongoing innuendo, post-official statement, was irresponsible. Because at that point, you are no longer simply questioning Williams. You are also accusing Wimbledon officials of lying.   

Andy Roddick, Serena Williams' longtime friend, texted her. She responded saying: "I'm not well." According to Roddick, she also told him that she had been told it was a viral illness and that she was awaiting more tests.

So by the next morning journalists had a statement from Williams (first-person account), a statement issued from Wimbledon medical staff (independent verification) and testimony from Roddick (a third party).

So why insist that "there had to be something more?"

It's the "TMZification" of sports journalism. Too many sports journalists slip into running with the narrative instead of reporting what actually happened.  

Journalists were far tougher on Williams than they were on LeBron James. The former Miami Heat star issued a glorified press release via Sports Illustrated and then boarded a plane to Brazil without taking any questions. 

Coverage of James' "return home" was another example of media running with a narrative, despite what we were seeing unfold before our eyes. It was edge-of-your-seat drama of a torn James who was struggling to decide between returning to Cleveland or staying in Miami. 

I don't recall much being reported about James putting his Miami home up for sale in late March. I do recall a brief uproar in late June when his wife posted an Instagram picture of a map with Akron, Ohio, that included the words "Home sweet home!! The countdown is real! #330."

What we saw was dismissed as alluding to a family vacation. During that same time, James went on a family vacation to the Bahamas with Heat teammates Ray Allen and James Jones.

Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press
Venus Williams looks on at her sister, Serena Williams, during a medical timeout.

Those facts were brushed aside because they interfered with the exciting reality shows that had developed from James' indecision. It was "The Real Free Agents of the NBA," "LeBron's Got Talent" and "Who's Going to be the Next Domino to Fall?" all rolled into one big ratings bonanza.

With Serena Williams, there was real drama. But there was no mystery. We recognized what we were seeing: a woman who was struggling to keep her balance.

We saw her getting her blood pressure checked by medical staff. We saw Williams crying and perplexed by the moment. We saw her friends and members of her family appear concerned. Her agent left her seat to go down to the court. 

Yes, it was bizarre. We deserved an answer. Within hours, we had one. Her condition was brought on by a viral illness.

Bummer. Viral illness? That's such a non-sexy explanation. It had to be something else.

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