Kudos to Serena Williams for Bold, Beautiful Sports Illustrated Cover

Merlisa Lawrence Corbett@@merlisaFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2015

Serena Williams serves during an 2015 IPTL event.
Serena Williams serves during an 2015 IPTL event.Bullit Marquez/Associated Press

Serena Williams looks fierce on the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. She's lounging on a throne with one leg draped over the arm of the chair. It's a badass pose that says more about who Williams is than what she does. 

It looks like a fashion cover for Vogue or Cosmopolitan. Instead, Williams graces the cover of Sports Illustrated as the 2015 Sportsperson of the Year. She's the first solo woman to receive that honor since Mary Decker in 1983. 

Along with congratulations from the WTA Tour, Sports Illustrated, colleagues and fans, Williams received the all-too-familiar backlash.

Chris Chase of USA Today's For the Win noted the opinion of naysayers who wonder whether Williams deserved the award over fellow tennis star Novak Djokovic or NBA MVP Stephen Curry.

Los Angeles Times writer Chuck Schilken wrote that some disgruntled horse racing fans believe American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, should have received the honor over Williams. Then the L.A. Times tweeted a photo of the Williams cover juxtaposed with Pharoah under the headline "Serena Williams or American Pharoah? Who's the real Sportsperson of 2015?" 

In presenting the case for the horse, Schilken lists American Pharoah's accomplishments in between fans' tweets and then writes, "Of course, a strong argument can be made for Serena as well—one that goes beyond the obvious points that the award is called the sportsperson of the year and only humans have won it since its inception in 1954."

Schilken points out that in the Sports Illustrated fan poll, American Pharoah won. By giving equal weight to a fan poll and random tweets from horse-racing fans, Schilken implies that those voices are somehow relevant to the panel of experienced Sports Illustrated editors who selected Sportsperson of the Year. 

As explained by Sports Illustrated managing editor Christian Stone, a group of editors at the publication debate and decide on the award every year. Though Schilken references this explanation in his article, he sandwiches it between irate tweets and a comparison between American Pharaoh's Triple Crown win and Williams' failure to capture the calendar-year Grand Slam.

The reaction surrounding Williams winning Sportsperson of the year follows a longstanding pattern of negative rhetoric that seems to arise each time she reaches a milestone in her career. 

As Vox writer Jenee Desmond-Harris wrote this summer, "Serena Williams is widely considered the greatest woman tennis player ever. But all too often, instead of being celebrated, she's targeted with outrageous racist and sexist comments. This bigotry has tarnished nearly every victory, magazine cover and interview of her entire incredible career."

Along those lines, one of the more peculiar reactions to the cover came from Chicago Sun-Times writer Rick Morrissey, who wrote that Williams is "looking like she wants one thing, and it's not a chat with the line judge."

Morrissey insinuates that Williams seeks sex with that pose. He also uses this opportunity to bring up a line judge, alluding to one of the lowest points in Williams' career.

He wrote that the cover "in no way helps the cause of women looking to be recognized for their athletic abilities. A prudish outlook in 2015? Maybe, but it’s hard to shake the idea that women, sadly, are still doing what men want them to do, whether they mean to or not." 

Wow, it's laughable to see a man using Williams' self-assuredness as some example of a weak woman being forced into something sexual in nature against her will. And he's doing it regarding Sports Illustrated, a magazine that runs an annual swimsuit issue that one year featured Olympic great Lindsey Vonn in a red bikini while holding snow skis. 

Morrissey and many others questioned why Williams posed in a leotard and not with a tennis racket?

Other athletes who have won this honor have forgone their athletic attire for a different look. In 2008, swimmer Michael Phelps appeared on the cover wearing a tuxedo with his hairy chest exposed under a partly unbuttoned dress shirt drenched to the point of transparency a la a wet T-shirt contest. 

Michael Phelps accepts the Sports Illustrated 2008 Sportsman of the Year award.
Michael Phelps accepts the Sports Illustrated 2008 Sportsman of the Year award.Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

LeBron James wore a dark suit for his 2012 Sportsperson of the Year photo. Not a basketball in sight. 

Why wouldn't the owner of a fashion line choose a stylish pose over the standard racket-in-hand look? This is after all the woman who wore a catsuit on the court and posed nude for the cover of ESPN's Body Issue. Williams exposed more skin in her 2015 Australian Open outfit than she did on this cover. Yet Morrissey deems this cover "too provocative?"

Wait, wasn't it just this summer that New York Times writer Ben Rothenberg wrote an article that was widely criticized for, among other things, casting Williams as too masculine?" She's now being criticized for being "too sexy?" 

That pretty much sums up the damned if she does, slammed if she doesn't foolishness Williams puts up with. It's those type of trollish reactions to Williams' success that makes the Sports Illustrated cover more splendid than a cross-court forehand winner. 

In that one pose, Williams flaunts her self-confidence. At age 34, Williams is in command of her career, her body and her mind. 

Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press

She boycotted Indian Wells, a "mandatory" tournament for 14 years and returned on her terms. After a heartbreaking loss at the U.S. Open, Williams decided to skip the WTA Tour Championship and pass on a chance to earn $3 million

But Morrissey thinks Williams' pose is the byproduct of men dictating terms to her? 

As Sports Illustrated 's Stone explained in the companion piece, the pose was Williams' idea. Stone wrote that Williams wanted "to express her own ideal of femininity, strength, power."

Stone also offered readers insight into why editors chose Williams as Sportsperson of the Year: 

She is not perfect, and assorted confrontations with, and perceived slights of, tournament officials, opponents and the public at large will find their way into her narrative, this one included. But as a performer, as a doer, as a symbol, no one extended themselves and embraced the best (and worst) the sports world has to offer quite like Serena Williams, champion, 2015 Sportsperson of the Year.

At this stage in her career and life, Williams understands how her actions are scrutinized and criticized. She's a savvy woman who has amassed a fortune in business ventures. Of course she knew when she struck that pose that she would hit on some nerves.

She did it anyway.

Kudos to Williams. Not just for a fabulous year or for winning this honor. Congratulations on that in-your-face cover and the message it sends: If every move you make ignites conversation, might as well set the world on fire.

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